February 7, 2009

"Frost/Nixon"

Here's the beginning of my review of the Best Picture nominee from The American Conservative:

One of the oddities of the movie business is how films for grown-ups, such as “Frost/Nixon,” are now held hostage by that rather adolescent competition, the Academy Awards.

If “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s adroit rendering of Peter Morgan’s intelligent stage play about English TV personality David Frost’s 1977 interviews with deposed President Richard Nixon, had come out in April or August, it would have served as a refreshing break from the dreary fare of those off-months. Released at the end of the year to impress Oscar voters, however—along with seemingly the all the other non-superhero movies of 2008—“Frost/Nixon” has gotten lost in the box office crush, even after snagging Oscar nominations in five major categories (Best Picture, Directing, Acting, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay). Having spent the summer listening to my sons debate Iron Man versus Batman, the Oscar race leaves me perturbed that I’m now wondering whether Frank Langella’s Nixon could beat up Mickey Rourke’s Wrestler.

Unsurprisingly, Morgan’s persistent metaphor of the interviews as a boxing match between an untested lightweight and a battered ex-heavyweight champ doesn’t quite stand up to the scrutiny that a Best Picture winner should withstand.

Nonetheless, the glass is more than half-full. Ron Howard (“Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind”) is a famous director because he was a child star, but he’s less an auteur with a distinctive style than a versatile craftsman in the tradition of all those highly effective but now easily confused golden age directors such as William Wyler and William Wellman.

I go on to explain what's wrong with the movie, but for that you've got to get the magazine. (Subscribe here.)

One additional point worth mentioning is that Peter Morgan's somewhat contrived drama relies upon the contemporary audience's presumption that talk show hosts are lowbrows who are completely ignorant about anything other than celebrity culture. But that wasn't the assumption a generation ago. Big time talk show hosts back then were supposed to be middlebrows with a lively range of interests. (The pure entertainment industry talk show hosts like Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas were a tier below the top guys in prestige.)

Steve Allen, the first Tonight Show host, was a wit, a musician, and a rather earnest intellectual who wrote a shelf-full of books. Jack Paar's Tonight Shows were more like the Charlie Rose Show than today's Tonight. Carson's early 1970s competitors, Frost and Dick Cavett, were metropolitan raconteurs tied into the world of ideas in London and New York, respectively. They weren't deep thinkers, but they knew the deep thinkers. Carson was perhaps closer to the pure show biz model triumphant today, especially after his move from NYC to LA, but he had his outside interests, such as astronomy and population control, thus making the scientists Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich into huge celebrities.

It often wasn't hard to figure out where these guys fell on a sophisticated ideological scale. Steve Allen, for example, was clearly an anti-Communist liberal of the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. school, opposed to both Republicans and the 1960s New Left.

Today, though, celebrity culture reigns supreme on the big talk shows, and the old middlebrow aspects have largely vanished. I presume Jay Leno doesn't mind -- he's a fine fellow and a consumate professional, but his interests lie elsewhere -- but you've got to imagine a smart Harvard boy like Conan O'Brien sometimes regrets he wasn't born three or four decades earlier and could have the range of topics that a David Frost was allowed to pursue.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

14 comments:

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Steve was right on the money that the newspapers are going to start pumping out Kenya stories. Here's one about an American priest who spoke out about the corruption and thuggery in Kenya. It's long(5 pages) and ran on the top of the website.

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-kaiser8-2009feb08,3,7893210.story?page=1

I am Lugash.

SFG said...

Jon Stewart has authors on sometimes...

Wanderer said...

I really came away from the theater after seeing F/N more sympathetic to Nixon than when I walked in.

I don't think this was the aim of the producers, writers, director, etc., so I'm not sure how that happened.

simon said...

Like SFG said, I guess The Daily Show is where you get your middlebrow chat these days.

I am not Lugash said...

Conan is no doubt capable of having more cerebral interviews but I think he would actually loathe to do them. He seems to revel in that self-deprecatory, goofy, slap stick style of interview he uses with celebrities. I imagine he would be bored to death if he had to constantly maintain the composure required for a more serious talk show like Charlie Rose.

gene berman said...

This is off the "talk show" topic but bears on Nixon and his perception by the public.

Without a doubt, Nixon had tendencies most would characterize as "paranoid." But, from dim (youth and lack of interest in politics), I remember Nixon being demeaned regularly even before he was involved in national politics.
I think it may have stemmed from the fact that he prosecuted (and convicted) Alger Hiss. And, for many years, the left maintained that Hiss had been "set up" or framed for one reason or another andf that Nixon was the evil genius behind that miscarriage of justice. Is it paranoia when they're really out to get you?

SKT said...

I know Conan is Harvard educated, but he's more "nerdy" than "witty". He's also ultra-liberal as is David Letterman.

I'm personally a big fan of Jay Leno, just because he makes fun of the liberals at least as much as he does the conservatives.

Glaivester said...

Wanderer - yu know, I saw parts of Angles in America on HBO when I was in graduate school. I came away with an admiration of Roy Cohn, who was by far the most likeable character in the miniseries.

James Kabala said...

I remember when Stewart (and Kilborn before him) had mainly celebrity guests and someone from the political/intellectual world was a rare treat. That started to change somewhere around 2002, though, and Colbert has had mainly author guests since he started.

I agree wuth not-Lugash about Conan.

Anonymous said...

"Steve Allen, the first Tonight Show host, was a wit, a musician, and a rather earnest intellectual who wrote a shelf-full of books."

Steve Allen was one of a kind. Witty, sharp as a tack, and a natural comic. For such a serious person, he was a master of the absurd.
-- Victoria

Reg C├Žsar said...

Smart people no longer spend the midwatch in front of the TV. We have the Internet now.

Anonymous said...

Jack Paar's Tonight Shows were more like the Charlie Rose Show than today's Tonight [...] you've got to imagine a smart Harvard boy like Conan O'Brien sometimes regrets he wasn't born three or four decades earlier and could have the range of topics that a David Frost was allowed to pursue.

There's some evidence from O'Brien's work on The Simpsons that he is well aware of this. See, e.g., episodes from his time on the writing staff where clips from Krusty the Clown's show from the early 1960s were shown with folks like George Meany and Robert Frost as guests, drawing a sharp contrast with the tacky children's entertainment the show has become in "our" day.

Anonymous said...

The strange fact is that Robert Altman's excellent Nixon pic (the best of the bunch) 'Secret Honor' has been totally ieclipsed and ignored by history.
Philip Baker Hall pulls off a virtuoso performance as Nixon as a broken man (shades of the Hitler's bunker in Berlin), in a dramatic monologue which only has the stage props of a desk, tape-recorder, loaded revolver and bottle of whisky.
Baker-Hall rants and raves in an excellent portrayal of a man in aute mental distress and the gun and bottle are always at hand.

albertosaurus said...

I'm a bit surprised that no one seems to have commented on the choice of Michael Sheen to play Frost.

Sheen is famous for playing werewolves. Indeed the only other thing I can remember him being in was the TV series Rome where he played Nero. As I remember he brought a good bit of werewolf sensibility to his portrayal of Nero.

I suppose if this flic had been made a few years earlier they would have gotten Bela Lugosi.