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Minding my own business


(Directed by Ron Howard, USA/UK, 2008, 122 minutes)

Don't you know the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them. (From The Palm Beach Story, Writer/Director: Preston Sturges, USA, 1942)

Would it all have happened if Nixon had been a cinephile and taken note and heart of the work of one of America's most acerbic and pungent commentators. Regrettably few politicians have time for the cinema, even those whose duties are charged with thinking up, or being sold on, policies designed to promote national film production.

The writer Peter Morgan seems to have recently leapt out of the woodwork to develop his own sub-genre and this film is of a piece with the subjects he attacks and how he does it. Morgan's delight would appear to be to uncover grand, defining, transforming moments in history and politics, moments heretofore barely comprehended by the public. They usually involve two characters in a battle of wills. His first ally in this endeavour was Stephen Frears who made two films from Morgan scripts about Tony Blair, the brilliant arch schemer and dominant force of British politics at the end of the 20th century.

The first of those films, The Deal, was about Blair's rivalry with Gordon Brown and was made for television in 2003. It hasn't been seen here. That was followed by The Queen which again put Blair front and centre and again featured Michael Sheen as the actor playing the PM. He's shorter, fatter, toothier than the original but not seen or intended as caricature. Morgan has also worked over Idi Amin via The Last King of Scotland and Ann Boleyn's sister in The Other Boleyn Girl

The starting point for Frost/Nixon is Sheen's performance as Frost. Again, shorter and toothier, constantly beaming, almost gleaming, never an over-coiffed hair out of place, the concept of the character has slipped somewhat towards oily caricature and it's hard to take him seriously particularly as the film starts with a bit of Frost womanising that casts a less than sympathetic eye on the man and his morals. Before that, the film opens with Frost's career at its alleged nadir. He's doing a talk show in Australia and has some residue of activity in Britain. Thus we have to put up with a bunch of extras doing Australian accents badly and Frost involved in various 'tabloid' stunts to set the scene for what Frost was up to in the mid 70s.

I do remember him interviewing both Whitlam and McMahon prior to the momentous '72 election and making Whitlam look polished and urbane and McMahon look a fool. Not hard I suppose in either case. For what it was worth in the wasteland of TV this was regarded, then at least, as tough heavyweight stuff, which makes it surprising that Frost's work was apparently held in derision by the network powers that be in the US. We certainly had no idea at the time that his gig in Australia was most of what he had going for him. In a recent article on The Huffington Post, Elizabeth Drew takes issue with this view of Frost as a lightweight.[1]

My negative memory of Nixon, like that for Malcolm Fraser, hasn't diminished over time. Nixon and Fraser had hard, brilliant political minds but were thugs with a great capacity to stir up nastiness, even outright evil. John Howard certainly sat at Fraser's knee and probably admired Nixon. That view of Nixon was reinforced by a recent viewing of Oliver Stone's film Nixon, perhaps not the best preparation for seeing a new film that will cast him in a far different and more sympathetic light. What impresses me especially about Stone's representation of the man and the Watergate events that forever define him, was the way he drew the array of brilliant, less than brilliant and utterly malicious minds that surrounded him.

Machiavelli wrote: "The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him". It's true that Presidents, and Prime Ministers, are usually surrounded by the best available talent, although it's generally a sign that they are on the wane, or the way out, when the best leave and are replaced by the second or even third best.

Notwithstanding being surrounded by those best and brightest, the politician still hates not being right at every moment. When they are found, discovered or any other way revealed as having done something less than perfect, it appears they have an almost inherent quality which enables them to avoid facing or telling the truth. Most people will tell a lie if it gets them out of immediate trouble. Witness only last week when the new Premier of New South Wales having slunk off to New York for some reason to tie the knot with his long-suffering girl friend, immediately denies who he is when he was sprung by an alert journalist in the New York Registry office. They cant help themselves if they think it adds to their 'control'.

Politicians are especially prone to this syndrome and their definition of immediate trouble is very broad indeed. For some time now, decades in fact, such moments have often been managed by so-called minders and spin doctors whose sole job it is, again often, to explain how things aren't what they seem. Politicians surround themselves with these people because politicians have an almost infallible tendency to wish to tell a lie to exculpate themselves for something they have done, Their egos and their self-esteem demand that they never be wrong.[2]

Oliver Stone's 1996 film Nixon spends much time watching Nixon sit around with H R Haldeman and others trying to work out how to tell lies, tell less than the whole truth, explain away the blindingly obvious and set out vengeful strategies to destroy those who seek to expose their duplicity. The White House had become a bunker and its inhabitants were desperately trying to repel invaders. Preston Sturges understood it all. Still, sixty plus years after that lucid observation, a line which makes its audience roar laughing, we watch fascinated as Nixon's peculiar mix of Kennedy-envy, low self –esteem, high ego and alcoholism fuel his impotent rage and draw him ever further into a web of conspiracy to conceal. We know it is all leading to the ignominy of being the only President hounded out of office.

By the time we get to the period covered by Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, the man still called Mr President by all he meets is desperately seeking redemption. He has recovered his health and his instincts. He is one of those who, to use the words of another grand schemer Peter Reith, was "born to plot". His memoirs will shortly be published and inevitably the publicity that will be generated will call for Nixon to undergo television interviews and thus detailed scrutiny. Additionally Nixon wants to be shown the money and has engaged the literary agent Swifty Lazar to negotiate in his behalf. One assumes that the representation of Lazar in Howard's film also has elements of caricature associated with it. Surely.

Frost's ego and ambition, his desire to get himself out of Sydney and back into the big time, are such that he offers Nixon the unheard of sum of $600,000[3] for a series of interviews. He then needs back up to get himself across the subject and he hires the young James Reston to research the subject. Reston is contemptuous of Frost's abilities and has, at least at the time apparently, an unwarrantedly high opinion of his own. Eventually the lure of the money as well as the chance to expose Nixon's lies brings him on board. At the crucial moments he will be able to do nothing except stand on the sidelines and mutter about Frost's interviewing techniques and his failure to press key points that they feel will reveal the disgraceful Nixon. They forget, or never acknowledge that Nixon had one of the sharpest political brains of his generation to accompany his ruthless pursuit of office and power.

Which brings us back to those ubiquitous minders. By now Nixon's staff is led by Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) a smart political operative with a good eye for what's good for Nixon and a very driven loyalty. He's a former military man and very, disciplined in the face of pressure. The film seeks to inform us that at the crucial moment when Nixon has been goaded into admitting his guilt Brennan bursts into the room and cuts the session off. Minders, as they have done and are still required to do, are usually only able to sit and watch the show on TV monitors. Finally, when the politician has to face the music,' its one on one. It's that reason alone that should make the politician the smartest man in the room. No matter how arrogant or even smart the journalist is, the politician will usually be able to control events, manage the information, put his own spin on things. Finally the politician is prepared to put up with the verbal harassment because he or she thinks they can get their own message across. When they fail to do this, especially if they are leaders or pretenders, then their career usually sinks.

The most amusing side moment in Frost/Nixon occurs just before one taping session is about to commence. Frost is being serious and there is some minor chit chat between "Mr President" and "Mr Frost" until at the very last moment Nixon inquires about how Frost has spent the weekend and asks: "Do any fornicating?" Frost is nonplussed as the taping starts.


In all the taping sessions, Nixon is accompanied by five others, grey anonymous men and a single unexplained woman, whose only role in the movie is to stare balefully at the monitor. They would no doubt report to "The President" at the end of the day on what went right or wrong. Minders generally seek to emphasise the positive and ignore the negative. What's the point of telling the boss that he was less than brilliant, that he forgot a salient fact, that he had ignored or forgotten an agreed approach or response. The cocoon built around the politician is protective of him but also of the minders. They hardly wish to be typed as the bearing of bad tidings.[4]

In the aforementioned article by Elizabeth Drew she takes issue with the factual basis of some of the crucial moments in the movie but, finally so what. It's a Hollywood entertainment, made by a big studio and directed by an A-List Oscar winner. It's set safely in the past and the message, which reiterates what Preston Sturges wrote lo those sixty years ago, is hardly new. For impact and for it to draw a crowd it has to have something with some oomph and that comes down to that contrived, and perhaps falsified, dramatic moment. It's helped however by the playing. Frank Langella's performance as the late years Nixon is a perfect complement to Anthony Hopkins in the Oliver Stone version of his 'great' years. There is something mesmerising about a good impression.

Finally the question should be asked whether anyone could ever contemplate making a film like Frost/Nixon in Australia. In our short cinema renaissance there's no history of it, no background for it, no atmosphere that says that, well, nothing's sacred. It's in our literature and the theatre, where traditions dating back beyond Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory. More latterly the cynicism and ridicule that began in the period of comic defamations by the Australian Performing Group and the original Nimrod Theatre, where vulgarity, larrikinism and the puncturing of public reputation have been at their highest still reign. The mega-hit musical Keating! is only the latest manifestation of this tradition. Our own movies are the poorer for the lack of it.[5]

[2] Many years ago a politician I worked for had sought to appoint a less than worthy person to a plum overseas posting. The Opposition were tipped off about this and questioned the politician in the Parliament. He claimed not to be involved in the appointment process. Next day a journalist rang me and asked me to confirm that a person, named, from the Minister's office, had gone round that morning and requested that the application be withdrawn. Which was done. The Opposition planned to ask the Minister, within a half or so at Question Time how it was that he wasn't involved in the appointment process but could request that a candidate withdraw. They expected the Minister to invent some complicated lie to them and that indeed was the Minister's first thought and his intention. However the advice he got was that another lie would be futile and probably career-ending. He should instead simply say yes he did it and sit down. The hope was that the Opposition would be totally nonplussed by such candour and have no plan B to follow up the unexpected honesty. That turned out to be the case and the Minister lived to become Treasurer.


[3] "the script is straightforward about the fact that under their agreement Nixon was to be paid for the interviews (a then-whopping $600,000), a highly unusual arrangement, it omits the even more questionable part of the deal in which Nixon was guaranteed twenty percent of the profits from the sales of the interviews to television stations. Thus, the two purported gladiators were in business together, with a mutual interest in making the interviews interesting enough to make a nice profit." Elizabeth Drew, ibid

[4] One employer was often uninterested in focussing on his regular, generally unremarkable speeches until he got in the car to head to some lunch or trade event. He would then start reading the script and eventually, inevitably, would ask: "Who wrote this shit?" I thought it a smart move never to have the author in the vehicle on such an occasion. He or she would be named but the name forgotten once the ordeal of public speaking was safely over.


[5] In Australia the concept of the insider is given weekly veracity by an ABC program in which journalists talk among themselves being titled "The Insiders".