The Political Animal at Rest #2

The other day I watched Frost/Nixon, the 2008 film adapted from the 2006 play adapted from, well, the 1977 bit of history.  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their Broadway performances as David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, working out their divergent fates in the series of on-camera interviews that the British television personality set up with Nixon three years after he resigned from the presidency.

I wasn’t too blown away by the movie but think it’s worth seeing for several reasons.  First, I’m in favor of anything that gets a person thinking about an important historical event or personality.  This, the movie does.  It suggests the complex emotional currents swirling around in the aftermath of Watergate, as a chain of ridiculous and unnecessary crimes brought down the entire inner circle of the White House and prompted the most powerful man in the nation to flee ignominiously rather than face impeachment or say what had happened—what he had done—while he was in office.

Yes, the ignominy of Richard Nixon’s end was astonishing.  More to the point, his furtive escape from the machinery of justice left the American people full of frustration, disappointment, and hostility.  They were entitled to something more and better from their leader.  Nixon’s violation of their contract left them degraded and cheated.  They watched powerlessly as Nixon climbed into his presidential helicopter (which belonged to them, by the way) and flew away from blame.  The film doesn’t really do justice to these precipitating events and their effects on the public, but it channels enough of the flavor of this peculiar historical moment to give viewers the idea.

Second, Michael Sheen is brilliant as David Frost, depicted here as a benign, happy-go-lucky risk-taker.  Now something of a British national treasure (the Australian-born Frost was knighted and is still working at age 73), he was then at risk (we are to believe) of becoming a nobody.  Adrift professionally, Frost latches on to the desperate and expensive scheme of interviewing Nixon as a way to save himself from oblivion and irrelevance.  Bleak prospects and a yen for respectability drive both characters into a wary relationship and a mediated struggle for supremacy.  Will the seemingly careless Frost manage to wrest anything valuable from his cagey and formidable adversary?  Frost’s success in doubling down at a critical juncture and exacting admissions from Nixon that ostensibly relieve a troubled nation makes this the ultimate Brit feel-good movie.

Frank Langella’s Nixon is evocative enough to send you off on a quest for vestiges of the real man, and this is the final reason the film is worth viewing.  The question of Nixon’s role in history is essentially a question of personality, a topic this film treats inconclusively.  Yet even its cursory sketch of Nixon’s discordant makeup raises questions that Americans will be debating for years to come.  Curiosity sent me to YouTube, where, for a time, footage from the original interviews was on view.  The memory of Nixon assessing his own failings will stay with me a long time.  It’s compelling stuff.

RELATED:
The Political Animal at Rest #1 (on the 1942 Capra film Meet John Doe)

The Political Animal at Rest

Production still of Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason

Aristotle conceived of us as political animals, attaining complete fulfillment only through participation in political life.  If true, this interminable campaign season should be one of our happiest times.

Thrilled as we may be with the eat-drink-politics character of the weeks unfolding, we must be on guard: some 235 days remain before the general election.  Political animals are highly sensitive, and have been known to be susceptible to sudden mood swings.  For such high-strung creatures, political engagement 24/7 simply isn’t healthy.

Happily, their forebears have created a magnificent canon of diverting novels and movies, whether about campaigning and the presidency, or about Washington, government, paranoia, political eras, or the political bug more generally.  Just the other day, I saw a love story set against the unlikely backdrop of the G8.  Pastimes for the political?  There are endless possibilities.  Not all are great works by any means: some are fantastic, some hard-hitting, others irreverent or downright silly.  But they speak to a political animal’s recreational needs by furnishing an excuse to think about politics by other means.

Walter Brennan in Frank Capra's 1941 film, "Meet John Doe"

Today’s recommended diversion: Meet John Doe (1941), an old chestnut by Frank Capra that seems tailor-made for our times.  With its Depression-crazed characters struggling in the grip of an all-destroying capitalism, the film reads like something straight out of Occupy.  Gary Cooper is Long John Willoughby, a down-and-out ballplayer who, for the sake of 50 dollars, agrees to become “John Doe,” a symbolic everyman he knows to be a journalistic fraud.  Barbara Stanwyck is journalist Ann Mitchell, scheming to make John Doe a sensation out of professional vanity and for the sake of keeping her job.  Both become better humans as they struggle against D.B. Norton (is that D.B. for Dollar Bills?), an oil-turned-newspaper baron intent on controlling politics and public opinion.  Walter Brennan nearly steals the show as Willoughby’s sidekick “the Colonel,” a fellow bum who is the moral center of the movie.  His classic warning against “the heelots” is a must-see.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain.  You can watch it immediately in its entirety via YouTube or the Internet Archive.  Go for it.  Because you know what?  The real thing’ll still be there in a few hours’ time.

Image (top): Publicity still for Meet John Doe
with Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and James Gleason,
from this source.

Image (bottom): Walter Brennan in Meet John Doe,
public domain.