10 January, 2009


Went and saw Frost/Nixon last night. I didn't read any reviews before I went, but now that I look around a bit, I see that there is some controversy over the movie's interpretation of the historical record. Or rather, its complete inversion of the premise of the interviews. (Spoiler alert!) While Frost is portrayed as forcing Nixon to concede that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy and then apologize to the American people for it, it appears that what actually happened was more along the lines of a premeditated choice on the part of Nixon that he would make a sort of public apology - and in the actual interviews, he never did admit to anything more than "mistakes".

So there's that. And that's important to know. But I think a more interesting part of the movie is of a rather different order and more-or-less untouched by the above convenient fiction. Namely, that the invention of the story of Frost as Nixon's antagonist - who, in the words of one of the characters, is using the interviews to get a "conviction" - makes sense and resonates because that intense desire for a conviction, an admission, for some sort of closure, actually existed for a huge number of people. Nixon's abuses really seemed to cause a national trauma, a tear in the fabric so to speak - people were pissed that Tricky Dick was going to get away with taking a shit on the constitution and acting like it smelled like a rose. In that sense, the movie's fictional take on history gets to the truth of its times, and it begs the question of why our times are different. Bush has broken the law, lied to the American people, and violated constitutional limits on executive power - yet I don't get the sense that we are emotionally invested in the catharsis of hearing him confess, that we will feel robbed of our due if he is never convicted in court.

Perhaps because we think of him as an idiot and not a mastermind? Perhaps because his crimes are not reducible to a single, dramatic incident, or because they are spread out over many people such as Yoo, Addington, Gonzales, etc? I think most likely its because Obama has served as that catharsis, campaigning on wiping away the sins of the past much as Jimmy Carter did, and constituting a near complete conviction of Bush in the court of public opinion. So are we going to be free of the need for revenge, or will Bush haunt us like Nixon clearly continued to haunt his generation?

Note: These reflections grew out of an extended conversation with Eremita in the aftermath of the movie-viewing experience, and are significantly indebted to her insights.


spencer said...

I think most people just want Bush to leave. Plus...I'm not sure if this is right, but Bush still has a base. I don't know if Nixon did.

Eremita said...

Also I think it may be correct to say that the American public is disillusioned enough with politics and the media that we don't expect any better. Because we don't expect any better, we are not outraged, we find out views confirmed.

Interestingly, perhaps Watergate was a part of the public debacle that has left the public with this defeatist distaste.

We expect our elected officials to be liars, all we ask is that they are better at it than Nixon. And then, when sometimes they are not (WMDs), we look the other way rather than display genuine offense.

Cassady said...

I'm not sure if Nixon had a base around his impeachment, but I think he has some form of a base now--as one of, if not *the*, founders of modern conservatism and the Republican party values as we know them. But that's beside the point.

Politicians have been skewered as liars loooong before Nixon, but I for one think that Nixon to some extent has defined the modern sense of politicians as chronic liars and hipocrites. I agree with Eremita that we as the public are inured to the scandal and lies that surface--and the fact that they're a dime a dozen these days doesn't help--and at this point are too exhausted to go on the war path over it.

I remember some months back there was a lot of serious talk about impeaching Bush, also about waiting and seeing him arraigned before an international court. It occurs to me that a great many people were looking forward to that possibility, and then the energy just fizzled out. There wasn't a massive public outcry on any concerted scale, so it went away?

So I also agree with Spencer. A lot of people, it seems (except the head of the ACLU on the Daily Show tonight), just want him out of sight, out of mind.