Sunday, 25 January 2009

Frost/Nixon and the search for truth

A film about the making of a TV interview in the 1970s might not immediately seem like a great evening out. There's already some spice added when the interview is the famous meeting of David Frost and Richard Nixon. Add a great screenplay, some brilliant individual performances and it leads to a fascinating piece.

Ron Howard's film has been very well shot. Apparently, the movie is an adaptation of a stage play; however, this isn't obvious. In fact, the strong point of the movie is the detail that comes from close up shots of the two main protagonists' faces. The scene of the final day's filming of the Nixon interview is particularly well shot, using shots of Nixon and Frost's face on the monitor nearby capturing incredibly emotional intensity. The film tracks the emotions and passions of the two men over the period of the interviews, and uses these to tell its story. The acting is superb, and Frank Langhella deserves his Oscar nomination.

Truth is the driving nature of the movie. It is presented as having a redemptive element. Indeed, Frost's crusade to force Nixon to confess his Watergate-related misdemeanors is because it is considered that Nixon never received the justice that he should have rightfully faced. It's a champagne moment when Nixon finally confesses, and has (along with his family and friends) to publicly live with the consequences of his actions. The truth shows Nixon as he really is: neurotic, insecure, arrogant and paranoid.

However, the movie also blurs issues of truth. Firstly, there's a blurring between conventional movie and documentary, which means that in the film itself its difficult to separate truth and creative license. The content of the movie also blurs simple understandings of truth. Cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote in the mid 1960s that 'the medium is the message'; that is, that the type of medium that is used to communicate something affects what is communicated. 'Truth' is 'conditioned' by the medium through which it is communicated. This is a theme that comes through clearly in Frost/Nixon: for instance, there's comment on the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate: while radio audiences thought Nixon won it by a landslide, on television Nixon appeared emaciated, unhealthy, and awkward, while Kennedy appeared handsome, tanned and confident. Meanwhile, throughout the movie, the viewer is shown glimpses of how both Frost and Nixon camps seek to manipulate circumstances in order to produce the 'truth' they crave. This all contributes to what postmodern scholars call 'the hermeneutic of suspicion': the position of scepticism that assumes that one is rarely (or never) being shown the whole truth; but rather a message that is mediated and influenced by power games. Even in the final scene the whole truth is hidden as a 'white lie' is considered kinder and more beneficial.

Perhaps the contemporary popularity on Frost/Nixon is because the movie concerns a politician who has made mistakes: Will he come clean, tell the truth and admit that he made mistakes and acted wrongly? And how might remorse for these actions show itself? In a world that is now moving on from Blair and Bush, these are questions that still echo loudly.

No comments: