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Ed Driscoll

Nixon And Ebert At The Movies

December 13th, 2008 - 1:11 am

As Christian Toto writes, while Roger Ebert has always been a man of the left, his BDS seems to be getting the better of him these days. In his otherwise appropriately middling review of the Keanu Reeves remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, Ebert opines:

The message of the 2008 version is that we should have voted for Al Gore. This didn’t require Klaatu and Gort. That’s what I’m here for.

To which Christian replies:

Really? I thought you were here to help the public decide the best way to spend their hard-earned money at their local theater. Maybe that whole “thumb” thing was just a distraction.

Exactly. But Ebert really lets his 1960s-minted BDS flag fly in his review of Frost/Nixon:

Strange, how a man once so reviled has gained stature in the memory. How we cheered when Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency! How dramatic it was when David Frost cornered him on TV and presided over the humiliating confession that he had stonewalled for three years. And yet how much more intelligent, thoughtful and, well, presidential, he now seems, compared to the occupant of the office from 2001 to 2009.

That’s not strange, that’s what the media does to every Republican president when he leaves office when comparing him to a successor from his same party. Why should Nixon be the exception?

More Ebert:

Nixon was thought to have been destroyed by Watergate and interred by the Frost interviews. But wouldn’t you trade him in a second for Bush?

Nahh, I’m not a wage and price controls kind of guy. But that’s the great irony of Nixon’s presidency, as Tom Wicker of the New York Times wrote in his 1991 biography of Nixon. If the left could have gotten past their hatred of the man, they would have found, particularly in his statist warmed over Great Society domestic policies, he really was one of them, to paraphrase Wicker’s title — or at least he certainly governed like it.

While Ebert naturally gives the movie four stars, John Nolte provides a bit of much-needed perspective:

Frost/Nixon is a full on respectable, accomplished and intelligent retelling of the now famous series of interviews English television personality David Frost conducted with disgraced former President Nixon in 1977, just a few years after Nixon’s resignation. No one can argue a successful stageplay hasn’t been transformed into a beautifully shot narrative with two memorable performances by Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. The film holds your attention and reeks of competence from beginning to end.

All that’s missing is a point.

* * *

Frost/Nixon rates as an impressive television movie, but as a feature it lacks a point, any kind of real intellectual curiosity, and, most of all, an ambition to do more than win awards. There’s a great Nixon film to be made about this corrupt but fascinating man, but a couple of terrific lead performances won’t help anyone remember this one for very long.

Even Ebert circuitously admits that the film is a show about a show about nothing:

[Nixon] admitted what everyone already knew, and that freed him to get on with things, to end his limbo in San Clemente, Calif., to give other interviews, to write books, to be consulted as an elder statesman. Indeed, to show his face in public.

Wait–didn’t you start your article by saying that Nixon was “interred by the Frost interviews”? So the interview that interred Nixon freed him to get on with things?

In actuality, the interview was hardly the heavyweight slugfest the movie and its hagiographic critics make it out to be. At National Review, Fred Schwarz goes back to the newspaper reviews of Frosts’ interviews with Nixon to see how they played at the time with a media still giddy over their recent victory:

To someone who was around back then, the idea of making a major motion picture about such a notorious fizzle seems bizarre; you might as well write an opera about “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault.” Is this just a case of memory being deceptive? Were the interviews really a landmark of a milestone of a watershed, as the publicists assert? To test this, I looked back at the reception they got in the media of the time.

The show’s producers secured lavish advance coverage by giving virtually everyone with a press card some sort of “leak”: transcripts, unedited video, production notes, briefing materials, correspondence. The week of the broadcast, Nixon was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, in that long-vanished era when those publications were considered influential. In the days leading up to the broadcast, the Washington Post ran several solid pages of Watergate transcripts and analysis, flashing back to the glory days of 1973.

After the airing of the first interview — the only one anybody cared about, since it contained all the Watergate material — there was far less hoopla. The Post’s Bob Woodward, Nixon’s erstwhile tormentor, called it “a much-touted television interview which shed little new light on the scandal.”

Elsewhere in the Post, Haynes Johnson’s analysis dripped with disappointment: “[The former president] proceeded, for the next 90 minutes, to give us all the familiar Nixon responses we have all seen for more than a generation. Those advance reports about Nixon being broken — or shattered — or even shaken by the withering interrogation of David Frost are in error. Nixon is in control throughout. He offers little that is new, and less that is of substance.” Johnson continued: “Last night’s program was billed as a dramatic and historic encounter between Nixon and his opponent, the relentless David Frost. It was nothing of the sort. . . . By the very end of the program, Frost looks as though he’s swept up by the Nixon responses. . . . The tables have been turned. Frost had met his match.”

The New York Times, in a brief, unsigned “Week in Review” item a few days later, echoed the been-there, done-that theme: “The spectacle was a familiar one . . . he portrayed himself, in typically Nixonian terms and gestures, as a victim of circumstance whose errors sprang from good intentions. . . . No important factual information about Watergate emerged from the interview.”

* * *

How did this one-day story suddenly become the most important event since the Civil War? Well, if there’s anything the media loves more than overhyping an anti-Republican story, it’s overhyping its own importance, so when they have a chance to do both at once, it’s no surprise that they get a little too excited.

As I wrote here last year, Frost/Nixon is an attempt to use history, assisted by plenty of dramatic license, to retrospectively turn a loss into a win. By all accounts, Frost/Nixon does a fine job of dramatizing the negotiations and preparation that led up to the interviews. And it’s hard to imagine Frank Langella, who plays a Brezhnev-looking Nixon, giving a bad performance. Still, the movie’s fundamental premise is just plain wrong.

The trailer says: “In 1974 President Nixon resigned to hide the truth. But one man had a few questions.” In fact, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment; “the truth” was contained in congressional transcripts, court papers, and Oval Office tapes, and the great bulk of it came out before Frost and Nixon sat down for their “historic” clash. Some questions did remain unanswered: Why would anyone bug the DNC? Why didn’t Nixon burn the tapes? Where did the 18-1/2 minute gap come from? But Frost never brought these up.

All that his much-vaunted interviews “revealed” was the unsurprising truth that, even in retirement, Richard Nixon was the same Tricky Dick he had always been.

As Orrin Judd concludes in his review of Wicker’s biography:

It is perhaps the perfect punishment that Nixon has no one left to defend him now except for the same liberals who were his lifelong enemies. One imagines Richard Nixon spinning in his grave at the very thought of a NY Times columnist penning a 700 page apologia for his life and works, and one smiles.

And as John Nolte writes:

Since 1976′s All The President’s Men Nixon’s become a genre all his own. Take a look.

My personal favorite is Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, starring Philip Baker Hall and a half gallon bottle of Chivas Regal, and its Blagojevichian conclusion. (Language warning, but the video clip’s here.)

Nixon was still very much alive when the 1984 film was made; while I don’t know his response, I’d like think that deep down inside, he very much enjoyed, even a decade after he left office, still being able to cause that embittered a reaction amongst the left.

(And as for Nixon’s interviewer? Much like Dan Rather’s banishment to the cable purgatory of HD-Net, Frost has also been exiled to his own video Siberia.)