Monday, January 12, 2009
The Danger of Cinematic Revisions of History
I adore the cinema. Until Professor X completes the family TARDIS, motion pictures are one of the best ways I currently have to time travel. Movies transport us to so many awesome places and times, don’t they?
But I’ve got to be careful to discriminate between reality and moments depicted in movies based on historical events. I was surprised to learn that a pivotal moment in Frost/Nixon was taken a bit out of context. You know, the one that they use in the trailer, where Nixon/Langella says angrily “I’m saying when the President does it, it’s not illegal.”
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a KICKASS trailer:
But it’s also not really the truth. Not only did the exchange not play out precisely that dramatic way, the real Nixon and Frost weren’t referring to the precise things the cinematic Nixon and Frost do. The film’s question is more focused on Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover up. In the real interview, they were talking about burglary, surveillance and wiretapping, spying on anti-war groups. The issue was abuse of presidential power. And it was one of the articles of impeachment. Nixon’s response was almost professorial, as he semi-condescendingly explained to Frost that the President is above the law in such matters.
I get that movies often change things to make them more dramatic. That's okay. But what I've read suggests that the writer deliberately removed many references to subjects in the interview to avoid audiences drawing parallels with the current administration (8 days to go, not that I have it marked on the calendar for a big honkin' celebration or anything). That editing's sort of ....what's the word? Oh, yes, bollocks.
Professor X and I were talking about the film in front of our Amazing Children. I noted that it was a shame the film hadn’t explored the wiretapping aspect more, since it was so timely. Amazing Son asked what the big deal was. “Why does it matter if the government listens to your phone conversation? If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about.”
I’ve got some work to do here. But that’s the subject for another day's post. Or maybe a week’s worth. Rest assured, Amazing Son and I will be having many conversations about civil liberties in the months to come. He is a mature and thoughtful 14 ½ year old, so I have hope!
Elizabeth Drew does an awesome job analyzing the movie vs. history in her article Frost/Nixon: A Dishonorable Distortion of History. I won’t endeavor to cover all the points she does. It’s well worth your time to read her piece. In fact, I plan to check out some of her books.
Drew writes: The Watergate break-in was small beans compared to, say, the break-in of the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers - Nixon was far more worried about the discovery of this break-in.
Anyone out there in Blogland who thinks it’s okay for the President to authorize breaking into their doctor’s office, please raise your hand. For the record, mine’s not raised.