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Sympathy for the Devil: Frost/Nixon and the Politics of Reconciliation

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In 1962, he promised that we wouldn't have him "to kick around anymore." But Richard Nixon refused to disappear. And, for that crime, some of us on the left haven't stopped kicking. Not after his resignation in disgrace. Not after his death in 1994. And, as the film Frost/Nixon indicates, perhaps not even today -- despite a Democratic president-elect who preaches a "no drama" spirit of reconciliation rather than the usual partisan rancor.

What exactly is our problem?

The release of Frost/Nixon, the Ron Howard film version of British screenwriter Peter Morgan's stage play, offers yet another chance to explore our obsession with this man who, for many, functions as America's Satan: that brooding dark angel driven by his overpowering ambition. The movie tells the story of how lightweight British talk show host David Frost bested the American television networks by landing a series of exclusive interviews with Nixon in the spring of 1977. The former president was, at that time, preparing to publish his memoirs and launch a campaign to rehabilitate his legacy. Employing boxing and other sports metaphors, Morgan casts the tale as a battle to regain the public spotlight that only one man can win. On Broadway, the narrator, prototypical liberal James Reston, Jr., who serves on Frost's research team, identifies a moral purpose to their efforts, telling his boss that the interviews must function as "the trial Richard Nixon never had," insisting that "the integrity of our political system" requires convicting the former president of his crimes. And, after Frost lands his knock-out blow, getting Nixon to admit tearfully that "he let the American people down," the play ended with Reston's reassurance that the demon had been exorcised: "Nixon never again held public office of any kind, nor achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved."

Yet there's something about Richard Nixon that won't let good liberals rest. In moments of honesty, some of us find something in him that we, perhaps, admire -- certainly that we can't dismiss.

Frost/Nixon, as it moved to the screen, seems to have tapped into this vein, showing a much more sympathetic, admirable former president than appeared on Broadway. In a new scene (set at San Clemente during a break in the interviews' taping schedule), Nixon (portrayed brilliantly by Frank Langella) plays piano for his handlers while Pat Nixon (Patty McCormack), wanders into the celebration. When the president's chief corner man, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) exults that Nixon is "sitting on an 11-0 lead," Mrs. Nixon quietly expresses satisfaction that "things are going according to plan." Up to this time, Langella's Nixon has been almost gleefully wily and evasive, deftly stymieing Frost's attempts to corner him with tough questions. But, as his wife speaks, Nixon turns somber and pensive -- as if the sight of the woman whom he has most injured by his public misconduct makes him realize that he can't go on without admitting some kind of guilt.

As a result, the climatic scene in which Nixon admits that he failed the American people doesn't play out as the moment of sweet revenge that the typical Nixon-hater would desire. Perhaps to increase screen-time for the magnificent Oliver Platt (playing Frost investigator Bob Zelnick), the film dilutes the influence of Sam Rockwell's Reston character. As a result, Howard's movie become less a story about bringing Richard Nixon to justice and more about the one-on-one struggle between David Frost and the ex-president to revive their lagging reputations. Moreover, what in the theater worked to Frost's advantage, in the intimacy of the camera's close-up, now plays in Nixon's favor. As the former president prepares to give the closest thing to a confession he would ever offer, Michael Sheen plays Frost with eyes lit with the excited bloodlust of a piranha on the attack. Truth and justice are beside the point; Frost's concern is for capturing that great television moment that will redeem his career and guarantee the financial success of the interviews. By contrast, Langella's Nixon, seen in a way that the audience could not observe on Broadway, goes through a tangled mix of emotions as he struggles against, but then clearly offers, a heartful mea culpa. This time, Nixon carries the moral weight, telling the truth, though inconvenient to his hopes for rehabilitation, because he must.

But feeling sympathy for Richard Nixon makes good liberals uneasy. Perhaps this is because Nixon's comeback was much more successful than we want to admit and Peter Morgan would have us believe. After the Frost interviews, Richard Nixon went on to write nine bestselling books and serve as a private counselor to Ronald Reagan and other Republican politicians. Truth is, we're scared that he hasn't really gone away. We're more comfortable when we demonize him, keeping him in his place. At a screening on the second day of the film's limited release, the New York City audience clearly wanted to create this safe emotional distance. During the heated exchange about the 1970 Cambodian invasion, Langella's Nixon insisted that operation had been successful and that his only regret was in not having "gone in sooner -- and harder." At what would have been an applause line had the film been showing at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, a voice from the back of this Manhattan theater cried out, mock-heroically, "Sock it to 'em Dickie" and a garnered bigger response than any of the movie's actual laugh lines.

So, as many are eagerly awaiting the change in presidential administrations, Frost/Nixon puts liberals in a potential quandry. Barack Obama has done more than anyone to move beyond Nixon's politics of division. As one downstate Illinois newspaper editor explained to Joe Klein back in 2006: "Obama is reaching out. He's saying the other side isn't evil." In his conduct over the past two years, our president-elect has proven that he means it. But, as we sit in movie theaters and resist humanizing our favorite devil, we have to ask ourselves whether we do too.