Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Frank Langella, Richard Nixon, & Me

All walk into a bar...

When the alien archaeologists sift through the ruins of human civilization 5000 years from now, I suspect that the ones who specialize in the 20th Century will all be writing their doctorate theses on two people: Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon. Sinners are always more fascinating than saints, and I don't think any two men sinned as greatly or as globally as they. So, of course, the great attraction of the film Frost/Nixon, and the play from which it sprang, is Frank Langella's portrayal of our 37th and still most controversial President. I made a joke a few weeks ago about Langella portraying both Nixon in this film and Skeletor in the Masters of the Universe movie (I know what you're thinking now, and trust me, it's not worth it), but the truth is, I was champing at the bit. Langella's a great actor, and Nixon's a great role, and when those two elements come together, the result is always something to see.

There is no exception in this case. Langella dwarfs the entire rest of the movie. Not to say that everything else is bad; it's very good, and often great. But Langella unquestionably steals the show. The nuances of his performance are surely on the lips of everyone who has seen the film. But for me, one thing stands out. It is an achievement of the impossible. Frank Langella, you see, has made me feel pity for Richard Milhous Nixon.

There are those who feel that the prevalent societal and historical view of Richard Nixon is unkind. I am not among them. Yes, he went to China; yes, he created the Environmental Protection Agency; yes, he enjoyed the company of dogs. Regardless, he possessed a long list of faults that rank among the highest on my list of things I cannot bloody stand in a person. He was arrogant. He was mean. He was a bully. He was paranoid and spiteful. He reveled in power for power's sake. He demonized those who disagreed with him and surrounded himself with corrupt thugs and yes-men. He showed an appalling lack of concern for the welfare of persons outside his personal sphere of influence. That he rose to the heights of power was unfortunate, if not unexpected; that he so abused his power, and so tarnished the office of the Presidency for such petty reasons was unforgivable. Only the greater and more appalling sins of his ideological successors prevents him from holding the dishonor of being our nation's worst President. To say that I had nothing but contempt for him going into this film would be inaccurate only due to understatement.

There come many moments in the film where Langella humanizes Nixon. This is to be expected; he was a man like any other, merely on a larger scale than most. He plays piano, he makes jokes, he shows himself as a cunning and careful psychological opponent. There is a scene, I have no idea if it's based in truth or fiction, where he calls David Frost late at night and bares his soul, his most private fears and hatreds. All of these led me to understand Nixon more, but not to pity him. That comes later.

The movie becomes much more about the two men than the events around them; when Frost and Nixon sit down for the final set of interviews, the cameras might as well not be rolling. It's a personal moment for both of them, and between them. As Frost painstakingly corners the former President, and as the victor in their contest of wills emerges, Nixon takes a beating. And he deserves it. I have no pity for a man being called to answer for his crimes; that's called justice. But I did find myself feeling pity for the man we see after the interviews. Not because he is bowed and beaten and exiled, although he is that. Not even because he is condemned to "the uniform of the retiree," as he calls it. No, I feel pity for the man who, for the next seventeen years, must greet each day with the aching knowledge that his legacy, and his identity, and his name, will be forever linked with his greatest failure.

Failure is the great equalizer; it reduces all men to zero state. The specter of it paralyzes us with fear and doubt; the reality of it drives us to despair and the grave. It is the reverse side of courage on the coin of risk, the grimmest stakes in the greatest gamble. The moment when we must accept failure is one of the darkest, most lonely moments this life has to offer. I have walked through the valley of its shadow, and the times when I sought but could not find the path leading out have been the most horrible of my life.

I am not, by nature or by training, given to show kindness to my enemies. My inability to follow this commandment was perhaps my greatest failure as a Christian, when I still called myself one. But I am not so cruel as to see a man in such a moment as Langella's Nixon, when he looks out over the seaside vista of the house where he will die at the declining future, and not raise up a swell of pity in my heart.

It's a rare film that surprises me. It's an even rarer one that makes me surprise myself. I suppose it goes to prove: There are more facets to anyone than we can ever see, and more emotions in a heart than we can ever know.

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