I’ll admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. No matter how many critics praised it, the prospect of watching two hours of Richard Nixon was not an appealing one. I grew up in a Democratic household, and have disliked Tricky Dick for as long as I’ve had political opinions about anything. The only reason I rented it is a desire for completeness, for seeing all the Oscar-nominated films of 2008. (I’m so glad that Oliver Stone’s W wasn’t nominated for anything, because I would have had to make an exception. Even if it had won Best Picture, I would never watch that movie, as I cannot conceive of spending any time with even an actor playing Dubya. I don’t care about his early life, don’t give a shit about knowing what forces made him into the turd he is.) So I went into this one hoping I was wrong.
Well, I was wrong. This is a great movie.
I have to qualify that. Don’t take it as history. In fact, don’t take any dramatic film as history, because dramatists lie, even when they’re telling a “true” story. They have to; real life doesn’t unfold in classical dramatic fashion. It’s messy, and almost impossible to force into any coherent story line unless you take some liberties. So I’m aware that facts were fudged, or even changed, to make the story unfold in a certain way. I’m aware that many people, from the right and the left, have pointed out that “It just didn’t happen that way!” Even as they admitted that it was a cracking good story, the way it was told. So I’m not going to get into details of inaccuracies. They’re easy enough to find, if you want to learn about the real story. (And if you’re too young to remember this unfolding, day by day, on your television screen, I urge you to do so. Even if you do remember it, it wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memories of the real details.)
I think of this as more like a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare wasn’t an historian, he was a dramatist, and luckily for him, there were no videotapes to bring out to prove him wrong, so he could put these words in the mouth of Henry V:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
We don’t know what Henry said before the battle of Agincourt … and that’s fine with me, because he may have said something like “Shit, that’s a lot of Frenchmen out there! Oh, well, let’s do this thing and get it over with.” How much nicer that Shakespeare could put those wonderful words in his mouth. Likewise the speeches of a less noble character, Richard III:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Modern historians feel sure that Richard was not as bad as we’ve been led to believe, nor was Henry’s victory as lopsided. And that’s fine. That’s what historians should do. But it doesn’t diminish Henry V or Richard III. So think of this movie as Richard the Trickster vs. Romeo Frost. So why shouldn’t Nixon say, late at night, in his cups:
No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you, or how high the elected office is, it’s still not enough. We still feel like the little man. The loser. They told us we were a hundred times, the smart asses in college, the high ups. The well-born. The people who’s respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now, why we fight for every inch?
(My only misgiving is that, sadly, all too many people do take dramatic movies based on historical events as the real deal. But I don’t know what to do about that, and certainly don’t think we should hold dramatists to some standard of accuracy. Though I admit, from time to time dramatic license in movies pisses me off, as in the horrible lies concerning the FBI that were told in Mississippi Burning, or the stupidity of David Mamet having Frank Nitti die in The Untouchables.)
So, while we can be sure that a drunken Richard Nixon did not call David Frost in the middle of the night before Round Four of their epic slugfest … it is a terrific scene. In fact, the whole movie unfolds like a boxing movie, with the young upstart going up against the battered but still deadly old pro. Or think of devil-may-care Tom Cruise and canny Paul Newman in The Color of Money (though this is a much better film). It wasn’t like that at all, but who cares?
I still haven’t seen Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the last of the five performers nominated for Best Actor, but having seen this one now, I have to reluctantly change my mind about Sean Penn winning for Milk. That was a great performance, but Frank Langella is better. How good is he? He made me feel sorry for Richard Nixon, a man I’ve despised all my life. Nixon really was a tragic figure, in the Shakespearean sense. He fought demons all his life, and this script and Langella’s performance bring out his tragic weaknesses in the most naked way. Was Nixon really as self-aware as he is shown here? Did he really have regrets, did he recognize how far he had fallen in betraying his country and himself, and how his tragic flaw had led him down a path he should never have taken? Was he King Lear, finally confronting his folly? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. In this drama, he is the vanquished man, who dragged himself up from nothing to the highest position in the land, and then pissed it away, forever unable to divorce himself from feelings of inferiority, of not having been high-born, like the golden Kennedys. He is Richard III, without the base motives. It’s such a sad story.