Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 2, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

I have no trouble describing “Frost/Nixon” as the finest Hollywood film I have seen this year just as long as it is understood that the screenplay was written by a Briton named Peter Morgan, who was also responsible for the deliciously snarky “The Queen”. Although I had no idea that Morgan wrote “Frost/Nixon”, I was struck immediately by similarities between the two movies as I sat watching it.

David Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who was cast as Tony Blair in “The Queen”. He seems born to play these types of market-driven hollow men. Whether it is hustling votes or viewers, both Blair and Frost were more than happy to sacrifice principle for the bottom line. Sheen makes his appearance early on in the movie in a modish 1970s double-breasted blazer and an ever so phony smile, looking just like a Houston used car lot salesman.

As brilliant as Sheen is in his performance, nothing can top Frank Langella’s Nixon, which is about as bravura a display of the acting craft that I have seen in the last 5 years at least. Since the character Richard Nixon invites all sorts of scenery-chewing behavior, it is all the more impressive that Langella is careful to make his Nixon appear much more human, and thusly more repellent. Since the movie was directed by Ron Howard, who I generally associate with hackwork, I was surprised to discover that it had the same kind of crackling energy as “The Queen”, which was directed by Stephen Frears, a Briton with an obvious flair for this sort of material.

Like “The Queen”, “Frost/Nixon” unfolds as a conflict between an older, tradition-bound figure and an upstart who is viewed with some condescension. It is 1977 and Nixon is in a kind of internal exile at San Clemente. Frost, who has made a career as a kind of glib talk show host similar to PBS’s Charlie Rose but with a sense of humor and some intelligence, decided to produce a series of interviews with Nixon because it would generate huge ratings, based on the figures from his resignation speech. Nixon decides to do the interviews because he regards Frost as a lightweight and hopes to turn them to his own advantage in a new assault on prestige and power.

Frost decides to use two outside consultants to help him prepare for the interview. One is Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and the other is James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), the son of the dreadful long-time N.Y. Times editor who is openly hostile to Frost at the outset. As a hardened foe of Richard Nixon, James Reston Jr. did not want to waste his time with a lightweight.

From the actual debate

Much of the film is a reenactment of the famous 4 part interview with the first 3 segments seeming to confirm Reston Jr.’s worries. The final interview, which was intended to focus on the Watergate break-in, serves to redeem Frost as a serious interviewer as he allows Nixon to hoist himself on his own petard. Using incontrovertible evidence that Nixon was involved in planning the crime and the cover-up, Nixon was forced to state in his own defense as Frost pressed his case:

Frost: “So … what … you’re saying is that there are certain situations … where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation or something, and do something illegal.”

Nixon: “Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.”

Anybody watching this scene will be struck how much it resonates with the George W. Bush’s White House. David Cole, a respected constitutional law scholar and attorney, drew the parallels in a Slate article:

President Bush’s defense of his order authorizing the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without a warrant ultimately rests on a claim that Congress may not constitutionally limit the president’s authority, as commander in chief, to select the “means and methods of engaging the enemy.” This argument holds not only that the president has “inherent” power to collect “signals intelligence” on the enemy, but also that that his inherent power cannot be regulated or checked by Congress-even when it includes wiretapping Americans in the United States without a warrant.

This claim of uncheckable or “exclusive” constitutional authority amounts to nothing less than a modified version of President Nixon’s infamous 1977 assertion that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” President Bush has revived that discredited doctrine, with only a slight modification. His new formulation: If the commander in chief does it, it is not illegal. This unprecedented assertion cannot be squared with our constitutional structure, which relies upon checks and balances-even during wartime-or with Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, the Supreme Court rejected this precise claim when President Bush’s lawyers made it in the Guantanamo detainees’ case, Rasul v. Bush, in 2004. The administration, in short, is advancing a conception of presidential power that finds no support in constitutional precedent: the power to act above the law.

With a president-elect who seeks to model himself after a mixture of George Bush ’41 and Bill Clinton, it is unlikely that we will see any kinds of investigations of White House illegality of the sort that brought Nixon down. There are two things that militate against such an eventuality. One is the general weakness of the radical and antiwar movement that exerted such pressures on bourgeois politicians in the early 1970s. The other is Bush ’43’s avoidance of any criminal activity against the Democratic Party, at least anything that we know about up to now.

Don’t miss “Frost/Nixon”, which should be opening in theaters nationwide soon. It is my pick for Hollywood movie of the year.


  1. I’m curious about this one. If Langella can follow Phillip Baker Hall’s characterization of Nixon in Altman’s “Secret Honor”, it might be pretty tight. I’ve rarely seen Langella in anything I thought he was any good in, so it would be a treat to see him rise to the occasion for a change.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — December 2, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  2. I think it is exceedingly odd and stupid to allow this comparison of Nixon and GWB.

    Here Nixon is, three years after he had to resign from the Presidency because of his “take” on unchecked Presidential power–he’s been disgraced and he’s had to leave office and he’s been living in near obscurity. That’s one thing. The other is that the moment Nixon’s words of self-justification leave his lips, he’s reviled far and wide. People are shocked by what he’s said.

    Then we have GWB, a sitting President, doing the same thing (no, maybe it could be said to be the same thing in principle, but in fact what had been done was done on a much larger scale, much more invasively,) using the same kind of self-justification, and it flies. I can’t say it doesn’t receive notice or comment, but really not much, not much of a stir comes out of it.

    What makes it worse is that with GWB, there is the precedent of Nixon, which should have made the illegality of the actions much more clear, not less clear. In the post, the word “unprecedented” is used regarding Bush’s actions, and that’s just plain wrong. I don’t understand why that isn’t evident, especially in the context of discussing Nixon.

    Comment by Yusef — December 3, 2008 @ 5:26 am

  3. Langella was masterful in the London stage production of 2007. He played a much cooler Nixon than Anthony Hopkins’ in Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie. Hopkins gave us a twitching neurotic forever on the point of imploding. Langella understood that Nixon was more than a neuropath. Otherwise how could he have hoodwinked the country so successfully? The contrast between the president in public and in private was worth a whole treatise on contemporary democracy. By playing a self-possessed Nixon, Langella made his ultimate fall on camera much more dramatic. The man’s a great actor, almost as skilled as Nixon.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 3, 2008 @ 9:40 am

  4. […] Frost/Nixon […]

    Pingback by 2008 movies–a consumer’s guide « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 31, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

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