Saturday, January 6, 2018

Resistance Through Cinema: The Nixon 3

"Can you imagine what this man might have been
if he'd ever been loved?"
Nixon, 1995. 
d. Oliver Stone
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, James Woods, Joan Allen, Powers Boothe, Paul Sorvino

I have not yet made it out to the theaters to see Woody Harrelson in LBJ, so we're jumping from JFK right to Nixon. Stone said that if the former was his "Godfather," then the latter would inevitably be his "Godfather II." I have to take a little issue with that, having the opinion that JFK is a far more interesting and compelling story, but whatever.

I find James Woods to be creepier
and more evil than Nixon all days of the week, but he was
effective in this role.

Nixon throws a lot of information at us, much of it out of sequence, bouncing from strategic discussions within the cabinet about Watergate and Vietnam, Nixon's Quaker childhood (in black and white), along with his various previous political experiences. People who liked the man will find some validation in the scenes that explore his better moments in office (progress in China with Mao, ending of the war in Vietnam, and temporary peace with the Soviets) and people who hated him will view all of these events along with some of his more emotional moments and constant need for approval somewhat suspiciously--it's difficult to reconcile a man so beloved by his wife and daughters with the man who made (what was until very recently) the biggest mockery of the American Presidency the world had ever seen. 

The filmmaking style is very typical of Oliver Stone's usual chaotic brilliance, and close in overall feeling to JFK, but as its own production not without a few shortcomings: Anthony Hopkins' English accent slides in more than a few times, and it's a difficult thing to get around. His physical portrayal was more on point with gestures and hunching shoulders, but I found him to be quite smiley in general, which maybe he was, who can know, but I got the feeling from the content of the film that there was very little smile about, overall, during Nixon's presidency. Supporting cast was amazing, shouts out especially to Sorvino as Kissenger, Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig, and the late Larry Hagman (perfectly cast as a despicable, racist, Texas oil barron). 

I appreciated the approach of showing Nixon the man, and seeing some of his more humble and emotional moments was interesting and sad. Clearly he never got over his loss to Kennedy, and always viewed his power, his decisions, and even his family as things to be won and proven over and over. 

All The President's Men, 1976. 
d. Alan J. Pakula
"Woodward? Bernstein? You're both on the case,
now don't f--- it up!"
starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards

Based on the book written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this film focuses on these guys. Getting to the bottom of the Watergate scandal takes some time, and though the two men's efforts are mocked, ignored, and often sabotaged, it does eventually happen. Not a ton of the man Nixon himself in this film, but in watching, one becomes quite familiar with the men in his cabinet, what they knew, and how everyone was involved in the break in and subsequent cover-up. If your interest in the Nixon administration lies only in the Watergate scandal, then this is definitely your film. Resisting "the powers that be" is a big piece of this one. 

There is an over-arching feeling of anxiety present during this film; anticipation, discomfort, and a general sense of WTF, like, a lot. It's difficult to believe, even now, that this really happened. The film opens on the actual break-in, which is useful in seeing just what occurred and how it seemed maybe innocuous or random at first (the burglars were looking for things, stealing things, installing recording devices wearing rubber gloves), but as more details are discovered, the more serious it all becomes. Bernstein (Hoffman) is always hovering around people smoking or drinking coffee, Woodward (Redford) comes off as a downright stalker, and they both have to keep repeating the same questions over and over to people who are obviously annoyed with them but they never give up, and the result of all this is, well, Nixon leaving his keys on the table and bugging out. 

You learn a lot about journalism, the inner workings of the White House, and basic detective work. It's a great example of dedicated, cooperative problem-solving. 70s men's fashion, the young (and smoking hot) Redford, and legit McDonalds logos on the lunch are all nice bonuses. Oscar for Supporting Actor went to Jason Robards and film won Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Sound as well.

For further detail or education on the Watergate Scandal and the role of Woodward and Bernstein, see Redford's documentary feature below, "All The President's Men, Revisited."

Frost/Nixon, 2008. 
d. Ron Howard
starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon

"A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon," (IMDB). 

I really enjoyed this, probably more than the other two, because something about it felt a bit more approachable--rather than the more inflated and removed concepts of Presidents or celebrities living their posh lives, this film at its heart focuses on two disgraced people just trying to prove themselves. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a talk show host whose shows have been cancelled; Nixon (Frank Langella) has resigned and is living in California. 

Frost pitches a series of interviews with the former president to the major news networks, each one declines, and Frost decides to go through with it anyway, putting up his own money for the project with no guarantees it will ever see the light of day. In addition to the financial struggle, there are substantial conflicts between Frost's and Nixon's production teams about the interview topics, how they'll be controlled, and whether or not Frost will be allowed to ask the questions the Americans really want answered. 

Resistance comes into the story mainly in terms of Frost's actions, which really do a lot in making this film personal and something we all can relate to, exploring employment and financial pressures, the easy way vs. the hard way, standing up for oneself, and maybe most of all, rising to the occasion amidst a ton of adversity. The title itself is Frost/Nixon, which suggests a sort of battle, like a square-off or "versus" situation, and this ends up fitting well as the film progresses. The Oscar nominations were plentiful--Best Picture, Screenplay, Editing, Director (Howard), and Actor (Langella). Frank Langella's Nixon is a darker, more scowling one than Hopkins', and his vocalizations and dialogues seemed a bit more close to the real man's. The issue of his sweaty upper lip is addressed as well as a few awkward attempts at humor, and the effect is mostly sympathetic---Nixon wanted to be loved and just wasn't, and we the viewers see this, again and again.