The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It’s Time for Your Close-up

I sat in the dentist’s chair this morning waiting for my turn with the tooth man, when the assistant asked if I’d like a magazine to read.

“No, thanks.”  I said.  “I’ve read all in the rack.”

The selections were rags about Outdoor Camping (as opposed to what? Indoor?) and How Things Work. Pretty simulating reads for a dentist’s visit and interesting enough three months ago. She said she had a new magazine in her car and proceeded to fetch it for me. It was People. Sorry, but I think that is some of the most boring dribble out there and I’m too old to begin to appreciate the faces on the pages. I really don’t know any of the modern ‘stars’ and I don’t watch TV. I go to the movies about once a year for a reason. I like to buy DVDs after the newness wears away and they cost what they are worth. I like to watch my movies at home with the volume set at a place that doesn’t rattle my brain. I like to fast forward through really bad previews that I’ve seen again and again. I like my popcorn fresh with real butter on it (not too much), with a cup of perfectly warm coffee on the side, and chase that with icy cold and yummy water. I like movies that are well written and played, especially stories about exceptional people in extraordinary situations ... I don’t care about special effects or who’s the ‘hotty’ of the day. I’m an old dork, actually, and I’m ok with that.

None the less, there I sat with People, thumbing through the pages and catching glimpses of terribly dressed and apparently famous young people with names I do not know, feeling incredibly aged and out of date. There was the Sandra Bullock story, er ... Jesse James story, but I don’t care how he feels at all.  I like Sandra’s acting and think he has too many tattoos. But, who cares how he feels? Not me. I was only happy that I actually recognized those two people in that People magazine. I found myself more fascinated with the advertising, honestly. At least those felt creative so I kept on thumbing through. Then, just a few pages from the back, I came across an advertisement for an HBO movie that’s soon to air. I recognized Michael Sheen’s face right away and immediately snapped to attention. I like Michael Sheen. A lot.

The film advertised is called The Special Relationship and it is about the friendship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Sheen, naturally, plays the part of Blair. It is the third major film in which he performs that character and I’m wondering how long it will be before Americans actually believe he is Tony Blair.  He looks very similar to the politician, and plays him so believably well. The part of Clinton is portrayed by Dennis Quaid, which has me a little concerned but, by the photo in the ad, Dennis pudged up a bit, grayed his hair, and if he pulls off the Clinton speaking style then maybe I’ll believe enough that it’s him.  Maybe.

After catching the actors and the general subject, I read that this film was written by Peter Morgan. That, right there, is the reason I will make a point to find this movie once it comes out on DVD. If you do not recognize Morgan’s name, you may be familiar with some of his work. Two of my all time favorite films were written by Morgan, and both of those starred Michael Sheen.

The first was produced in 2006 and Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her performance as The Queen. Sheen, naturally, played the part of Blair. The plot reflects an intimate, behind the scenes struggle between HM Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair after the death of Lady Diana in 1997. The Royal Family wanted to keep the tragedy private, while the public demanded an overt display of mourning. Most of us know the story well. Most of us remember the week after Diana died. Few remember that Blair had been Prime Minister for only three months and the handling of public relations would set how the world perceived the man, and modern Royalty for that matter.

The story isn’t what I liked about the movie. I’d seen several others regarding Lady Diana and Prince Charles and found them tired and tedious. This film had a freshness about it, an authenticity that lead me to believe I really was peeking in on their world. Helen Mirren was fabulous as Elizabeth. Combine solid performances with Peter Morgan’s story telling style and you end up with what feels somewhat like a documentary. And, I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. I mean it in the sense that it’s an honest documentation of real and specific events. Watching the movie brought back many memories of the week Diana died and I just wanted to say one more ‘amen’ for her at the end of it. That was a nice feeling after a movie like that.

The second Morgan film taught me that what was special about The Queen was equally true for Frost/Nixon (2009). I almost didn’t buy this film because I hate the way Hollywood portrays Richard Nixon. It’s not that I love Nixon, or that I’m saying I agree or disagree about whether he was the worst president ever or that he was he overly villianized. I simply don’t like it when a movie and it’s performers tilt a story to make me believe it their way, and when they present Nixon they generally make a goon out of him. I’m not interested in seeing Nixon the goon ... I’ve seen enough of that already. I want to know what really happened.

I was 16 years old when Nixon sat down for an interview with David Frost and I remember well the moment the former President broke.

“I let the American people down. And I'll have to carry the burden the rest of my life."

I wanted to thank him for saying that back then. I wanted to thank David Frost for finally getting someone to sit down and talk about the chaos our politicians had delivered. Because, after that interview, it seemed America could finally move on and we did, and that was that.

What prompted me to buy Frost/Nixon  was knowing that Peter Morgan wrote it, which led me to hope it would be as honest as The Queen, and Ron Howard directed it (No matter what you think of Ron Howard’s politics, you must admit his movies are entertaining and pretty honest). And Sheen, naturally, plays the part of David Frost. I was hoping for a little insight not about the Watergate scandal (that’s another subject that’s been over-done and worn out), but about what prompted Nixon to sit down for hours of taped interviews with a British jet-setting playboy. When watching the original airing of the interview I did sense the battle of wits going on, and the moment Nixon uttered those truthful words we all understood his political career was over. He gambled, and he lost. Just as Frost gambled, and he won.

Morgan, just as he did in The Queen, interweaved actual archived news footage from the time period and wrote his script in an almost word-for-word narration of the real thing. Both he and director Howard let the actual events speak for themselves and that really was refreshing to see. I did learn what drove the interview. Sheen played Frost so well I quickly forgot Tony Blair, and Langella delivered the essence of Nixon so well that when that final interview brought the lingering close-up, I grinned in remembrance of the moment Nixon realized it was all over for him. Even knowing the story and remembering the infamous line, the time spent with this film felt like a pay-off well worth it.

Political films are beasts I generally try to avoid, unless there may be some truth in them that is free from political agenda. The two mentioned above are examples of the best sort of docudramas out there. I have high hopes for The Special Relationship. Again, I’ll be watching some history from my time, with characters and events I followed as they were happening. The media, as media does, tried to sway my opinion then by feeding limited and sterilized information. The ‘other side’ tried to persuade by outrageous claims and accusations. I have my sense of the truth about it, but do look forward to verifications and enlightenment.  For sure, I’ll already be inclined to believe what I see, simply because Peter Morgan is so darned authentic.

And that’s what I learned at the dentist today.


rogle_99 said...

I too was there 'in the day', and remember Nixon/Vietnam during my college yrs - what a mess. As bad as geo-political things were - as angry as people were - as tragic as the war was - as 'locked-in' as Nixon&Co was, part of me felt sorry for the man, and his family - watching him decompose on the world stage. He believed in an approach that failed. It reminds me of the line from the film, "where there is greatness, there is also great error..." (name that movie)

Irelock said...

At my age, then, it was a terrifying mess! And, you are right, there was a part of it that made one feel a little sorry for Nixon. Well, maybe just sorry about the public shame? I think Frost/Nixon helped answer a lot of that for me, as well as the role that media play in the collapse of any public figure.

Where do I know that line? It's familiar and I know I should know but I'm blank. How about my favorite Nixon line? "Nixon the man? Instead of what? Nixon the horse?"

rogle_99 said...

ok - here's a hint - it was spoken by Frank Thring in a 1959 production.....awards ensued

Irelock said...

Was it Ben Hur? I think Thring (who was Australian, wasn't he?) played Pilate in that, and that sounds like something Pilate would have said. Man ... haven't seen that movie in years ....

rogle_99 said...

Irelock.....2 points!

Irelock said...

YES!! I think I saw every Charelton Heston movie made. It all started with the Planet of the Apes .... I've been contemplating buying Soylant Green and sitting through that nightmare again ... it's like I have ADDHD today ;-o

Rubber Duck Artworks said...

I should go to the dentist more often.... but I would have seen that ad and thought nothing of it.

Irelock said...

Well, now you know what you would have missed! You know you'll have to watch it now, don't you? Although, I'm still trying to get you to see Frost/Nixon ...