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Frost/Nixon (2008).

Frost/Nixon (2008).

Directed by Ron Howard.

Distributed by Universal Pictures/Imagine Entertainment/Working Title Films. 122 minutes

Many historians were agog to see how Ron Howard had brought history to life in his filmed adaptation of Peter Morgan's play, Frost/Nixon. It was, after all, a well-made film, based upon a well-made play that had proved itself stageworthy in London, in New York, and on the road. But obviously, it should have been all wrong for a movie, where, as critic David Gritten writes, "all the cracking tension of rhetoric dissipates" in favor of the moving image. One might argue that if Frost/Nixon could not be seen on stage, as originally intended, it should be seen on television. It was a work that had been shoved into the wrong medium.

But even if it was arguably not a good film, could it be still considered good history? British screenwriter Anthony Frewin didn't think so. When the play opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London, he wondered why "anyone would want to stage, to re-create, what was, essentially, a nonevent?" In an essay entitled "Frost/Nixon. Or, A Load of Old Dick," written for Lobster Magazine in Britain, Frewin ridiculed the idea, "promoted by the film, that this was some sort of clash of the Titans, where there could be only one winner" This, he considered "nonsense." Instead, we see two clowns "on the make, show-biz style." The script has Nixon admitting to his involvement in a cover-up, but Frewin quotes Nixon's actual words: "You're wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up? No!"

So what is the danger of this level of flim-flammery? That the young, innocent, and ignorant might actually buy the hype, believe the premise, and consider this example of bought journalism a truly important political event? Did anyone at the time take these interviews as seriously as the play and film suggest? Apparently, London Observer film critic Philip French fell for Morgan's bait and wrote that in 1977 Nixon "was finally sunk" by David Frost. Anthony Frewin opines that perhaps Nixon's "resigning as the President in 1974, three years earlier, was merely some administrative detail of little or no consequence?" Why should Anthony Frewin's opinion matter here? Because for 25 years Frewin worked as Stanley Kubrick's assistant, and Kubrick was, famously, a stickler for historical detail, accuracy, and integrity.

Concerning the historical value of Frost/Nixon, Frewin considered it "a movie you can afford to miss. [Emphasis added.] It's for the rubes who don't know their history and think they're getting some inside track." This is all the more troubling, given the significant influence of movies and television on popular understandings of history. When asked his opinion of the Ron Howard film, poet and critic Tom Whalen responded to me: "I watched eagerly the original Frost/Nixon several decades ago, but wasn't impressed with either performer--proof that sometimes copies are better than the original?"

Frost/Nixon may not be impressive as history, but I contend it is still possible to find the film interesting as an adaptation of the Peter Morgan play, and to find the play interesting as an adaptation of the television interviews for the stage, creating for those interviews a history all their own. If my claim is that the film is primarily interesting as an adaptation, what exactly is being adapted here? A partial list might include the following:

1) A televised conflict between a flawed, conflicted, guilt-ridden politician lusting for fame, respect, and "legacy," and an egomaniacal television upstart from Britain lusting after celebrity and media success, both of them attempting to revive and reinvent their careers (if one accepts the logic of the plot);

2) An anomalous moment in history when an elected President apologized in public and, astonishingly, on television for his character flaws and for betraying the trust that American voters had placed in him;

3) A stage play adapted from transcripts of those historic television interviews;

4) A feature film adapted from that play, made by a popular Hollywood director as "entertainment" but replete with political and social significance and apparently carrying the weight and momentum of a dramatized history lesson. (and of course it will live on as a means of teaching history the way it wasn't);

5) A sort of history lesson, replicated and reconstructed, but also tweaked, dramatized, and therefore factually inauthentic (though spiritual authenticity may plausibly compensate here);

6) A tragedy of hubris involving what Aristotle would call a dramatic "discovery" and resulting in the fall into disgrace of a man of high station, American President Richard Milhouse Nixon.

All of these possibilities may be germane to understanding the process of adaptation involved in this motion picture. But above all else, what is being adapted is the image and the manipulated media memory of a severely flawed Presidency, given contemporary resonance by the awful consequences of a later flawed President about to leave office, with popularity ratings that were dropping through the floor. Peter Morgan's film and play simply reminded Americans that it had all happened before, and, bad as things might have been, the country and the Constitution survived intact.

James M. Welsh

Salisbury University
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Author:Welsh, James M.
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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