More than 30 years after he resigned from office, Richard M. Nixon has transcended politics and history and become epic. He has been portrayed on film by Anthony Hopkins, the man who won an Oscar playing Hannibal the Cannibal. And his trip to China has been the subject of an opera, the art form most suited for larger-than-life stories of melodrama and scope. Nixon is like a Shakespearean character, the ability and ambition and the tragic flaws of Richard III, Lear, or Othello.
No one work of art or history will ever contain this man of extraordinary contradictions, but in one of this year’s best films, based on the Tony award-winning play, writer Peter Morgan, director Ron Howard, and actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take a pivotal moment in Nixon’s life and make it into a gripping story of the craving of two very different men for power and acceptance and how it plays into a contest of wit and will that becomes a larger story of accountability and meaning.
Richard Nixon was all but exiled to his house on the ocean in San Clemente following his resignation from the Presidency in 1974, relegated to working on his memoirs and finding excuses not to play golf. British broadcaster David Frost was also in a kind of an exile following cancellation of his New York-based talk show, relegated to lightweight celebrity interviews and presiding over televised stunts. Both were desperate for a way to get back into a position of influence. Frost proposed a series of interviews, even though he had no background as a journalist or historian. And Nixon accepted, in part because Frost had not background as a journalist or historian and in part because he would get paid $600,000 and a percentage of the profits. Negotiated by uber-agent Swifty Lazar (a shrewd Toby Jones) and widely criticized as “checkbook journalism,” the payment may have been unorthodox but it was most likely one of the most important factors in eliciting the unprecedented level of candor from the former President, not because of the incentives but because it shifted the balance of power from the subject to the interviewer.
It was also a stunning example of the precise conflict at the heart of so many of Nixon’s failures — his desperate need for approval. He accepted the interview as a way to try to regain his reputation as an elder statesman and remind America of his accomplishments and value. But once again, as it did in 1960 in the first televised Presidential debate, he was defeated by television, but what a character refers to as the power of the close-up. In yet another of this film’s infinite regression of paradoxes, the close-up that most exposes Nixon comes closest to creating sympathy for him. It is one thing to read about the evasions and cover-ups and corruption. It is another to see his face, the desperation, the soul-destroying awareness of how far he was from what he wanted to be.
Staged like a boxing match between the aging champ and the upstart, Howard and Morgan show us the combatants in training, sparring, retreating to their corners for some splashes of water, and then back into it, each going for the knock-out punch. They manage to create sympathy for both men without any shyness about their flaws. Both have some monstrous qualities but neither is a monster.
Sheen and Langella, after months performing together on stage, fully inhabit the roles and are exquisitely attuned to each other. Langella has the more showy character, but Sheen is every bit as precise. Watch the way he orders his lunch. In a millisecond he conveys all of his skills and all of his vulnerabilities. Even in the middle of an important conversation with his producer he stops and gives his full attention to the person behind the counter at the cafeteria and he orders in a way that perfectly demonstrates his charm, his showy self-deprecation, and his need to be noticed and approved of by every person on the planet.
And then there is Nixon, that infinitely interesting jumble of contradictions. Langella shows us his glimmers of self-awareness that cannot add up to meaningful insight. Morgan has taken the privilege of a writer to make it truthful without being accurate in every detail. For one thing, it has better dialogue. Morgan’s “The Queen” was another story of politics, celebrity, history, and conflict between two strong public characters (the younger one played by Michael Sheen) . As he did there, his selection of the elements of the story he wants to highlight and explore allows him to make this men not just historical figures but symbols of duality and contradiction and ultimately to deliver some over-arching messages about what it means to be human.
One of the things I find most thrilling about movies is that they are timeless. Watch a movie and you can see the same performance your grandparents watched when it was first released. We will never know what it was like to hear Jenny Lind sing or see Sarah Bernhardt on stage, but we can watch Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, and John Wayne at their very best. That is why I am so happy about Warner Brothers opening up its archive to make available for the first time some of their treasured releases.
Take a look at the listings and you are sure to find some favorites you have not seen in years and some very worthwhile surprises. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only screen credit was for “Three Comrades,” a heartbreaking drama set in pre-WWII Germany with an incandescent appearance by Margaret Sullavan. There are biographies of Thomas Edison (with Spencer Tracy), Abraham Lincoln (with Raymond Massey), and “An Affair to Remember” co-stars Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr re-team in “Dream Wife,” about a diplomatic advisor assigned to assist on the upcoming wedding of her former beau to an Asian princess. One of Warren Beatty’s most arresting early performances is in a little-known film called “All Fall Down,” co-starring Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Angela Lansbury, and “Shane’s” Brandon de Wilde. And Burt Reynolds appears in “Angel Baby’ with Salome Jens, who is mesmerizing as an evangelical preacher. Some are available for on demand download as well as on DVD and many have clips available online. Desson Thomson talked to NPR’s Scott Simon about some of the highlights of the collection. I will be highlighting some of my other favorites in upcoming posts.
Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne likes to quote Lauren Bacall about old movies: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.” These films are not all classics, but there is something there for everyone.
“American Violet,” the fine new film about the real-life woman who took on corrupt and racist law enforcement officials in 2000, was written by Bill Haney. It was a very great pleasure to get to talk to him about the film.
Tell me a little about your background and about what made you want to write this story.
I grew up in a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. My dad was a teacher there and I went to school there and left to go to college. It was there I got the general idea that the goal of life isn’t to get something from the world but to give something to the world. The purpose of storytelling is to illuminate and express something useful about the human condition, sometimes joyful, sometimes distracting, but in an ideal world, constructive. I like stories about an ordinary person called upon to do something extraordinary. I heard Wade Goodman on NPR talking about this case in Texas. His storytelling was classic NPR expositional context so that I felt compelled and moved, and that was what launched the journey to find the people and write the story.
It seems to me to be a essentially American story — an underdog seeking justice.
It is a systemically frustrating view of American justice, and the way they fought to get justice. We’ve been doing these word-of-mouth screenings with really interesting discussions. One woman said she was really pleased to see the message that we can get change through the system, that if we are educated and stand up it can work.
I am often of critical of films that set the lighting for the white characters and do not to justice to black skin tones but this film lights the black characters beautifully.
That was important to us, too. It is challenging to make sure the visual beauty is equally spread.
What has happened to the real-life woman who is called Dee in the movie?
In a lot of ways she is doing great. At one level this has been a marathon experience for her. She stayed in the community until four weeks ago. She’s gone through a lot of struggles including some serious health problems. She’s still there and he’s still there so it hasn’t ended, but it has been cathartic for her to get this experience out there. She’s a bright, charismatic woman. But her community is blighted. In the local high school, 169 entered as freshmen, but only three graduated and none went to college. There are these inherent limitations and she pierced right through that. She’s out giving talks, finding a voice and a place in society. Her children have found this process hugely validating and inspiring. Telling her story this way helped them respect and admire her. She is articulate and persuasive. It has left some marks on her but she is stronger and a person with a bigger voice in her world as a result.
What are some of the movies you saw when you were young that inspired you to want to make films?
At the all boys school we had no television but we had these screenings on Saturday nights. I saw “Guns of Navarone” and was completely smitten. I love Peter Weir movies, especially “The Year of Living Dangerously” — a magical story for me.
What are you working on next?
I’ve outlined three movies and a documentary about endangered species. Half my work is connected to something around the environment and food will be at the core of the next movie. Food is a great subject because it is about love, health, appreciation, beauty, soulfulness, and humor.
What makes you laugh?
PG Wodehouse. My wife has me on a Wodehouse allocation. She will only let me read for like 15 minutes at a time. I love dry humor, fish out of water stories. My own three kids make me laugh — kids know how to surf your waves. If you’re not laughing at them you’re laughing with them. I love Abbott and Costello and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”
“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005). Must viewing for an almost operatic rise-and-fall story of greed and hubris.
“The Solid Gold Cadillac” (1956). Add a couple of zeros to the numbers and this classic comedy about a small shareholder who takes on a big conglomerate could have been filmed this year. Ripe for a remake!
“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994). The Coen Brothers’ take on corporations is both spoof and satire, making some shrewd points about success and corruption.
“Roger & Me” (1989). Must viewing in the era of the bailout. Watch for the many indicators of poor business judgment, including a “Me and My Buddy” exhibit with a mechanized worker singing to the machine that put him out of a job.
“Startup.com” (2001). The go-go madness of the dot-com era amplifies the challenge of finding that fine line between vision and hubris. Unforgettable characters.
“Boiler Room” (2000). Set in an illegal pump-and-dump brokerage, this movie perfectly captures the adrenaline rush of money-making.
“Executive Suite” (1954). A rare movie that focuses on the boardroom with a post-World War II C.E.O. succession struggle between the green-eyeshade C.F.O. Fredric March and the stakeholder proponent William Holden. See also the terrific animated movie “Robots” (2005) for a similar struggle.
“Owning Mahowny” (2003). This fact-based film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Canadian bank executive who embezzled millions of dollars and lost every penny in gambling casinos. What is fascinating is the way that every single person in the film, from the bank loan officers to the auditors and investigators and casino managers to the embezzler himself, are constantly assessing risk.
“The Corporation” (2003). A provocative documentary that measures corporate behavior against the standard diagnostics for human behavior and concludes that it fits the profile of a sociopath.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967). This outrageous musical comedy about a mail clerk’s rise to the top of a corporation is less of an exaggeration than it appears.
“Office Space” (1999). A cult classic about a Dilbert-ized world of workers oppressed by an endless series of management fads.
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). A fact-based cautionary tale about corporations subverting the market. See also the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006) for an updated version.
“Sabrina” (1954). This elegant confection of a love triangle, with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, also includes one of the most stirring defenses of the public corporation as a force for opportunity and creativity that has ever been put on film.