Fake politics for the real America Frost / Nixon, W., Milk, and the US election

Frost / Nixon, W., Milk, and the US election

First published in Metro Magazine | No. 60, 2009

Winner of the AFCA’s 2009 Award for Writing on Non-Australian Film

“It was an election night like none other,” crowed CNN. “In addition to the obvious – the selection of the nation’s first black president – Tuesday night’s coverage on CNN showcased groundbreaking technology.” Host Wolf Blitzer conducted interviews via hologram, ringed with a blue, sci-fi aura – an aura intentionally added to “avoid confusion” with the real hosts (1). Days later, it was revealed that these weren’t actual holograms, just effects visible to those watching at home (2). It’s a perfect summation of the ways in which reality was framed and reframed throughout the 2008 American election, used as both boasts and attacks. It saw artist Shepard Fairey boil Barack Obama down to a single image and a single word to create a “cultural phenomenon” (3); John McCain repeatedly demanding to know “who is the real Barack Obama?”; and Obama appearing on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s satirical, self-confessed “fake news” program, giving them their highest ever ratings (4). 

The US election was therefore perfect breeding ground for what Jean Baudrillard calls hyperreality: “a substitution of the signs of the real for the real itself” (5). This same logic weaves through the barrage of political films released by prominent directors around the 2008 election – including Frost / Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008), W. (Oliver Stone, 2008), Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008) and even Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009). Theorist Linda Williams has argued that despite the constant slippage of cinematic techniques between documentary and fiction films, documentaries have a “special interest” in the real (6). These films feature well-known actors playing well-known political figures and a focus on television as a source of historical truth, and each possess their own particular (and often peculiar) relationship with reality.

The transmedia permutations of Ron Howard’s Frost / Nixon are dazzling. It’s a movie, based on a play, based on a series of 1977 television interviews between David Frost (here played by Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (by Frank Langella); interviews famous as offering up the closest Nixon came to acknowledging and apologising for the crimes now collectively labelled as ‘Watergate’. Adding to this sense of history, the action is punctuated with the ‘talking heads’ expected in a documentary, with actors aged via make-up to suggest they’re speaking from an undefined future. Given that Nixon’s opening salvo of words is described as “the champ’s first jab”, this heightens the perception of Frost / Nixon as a boxing match by using the style of sports commentary. Frost / Nixon also allows the President’s appearance ‘in the flesh’ a certain power – enough to overwhelm Frost’s vehemently anti-Nixon researcher, James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), into shaking the President’s hand despite his ideological reservations. 

It is the television image, though, and not presidential flesh, that holds the most power. Howard makes sure the audience knows it, too, through ominous on-air lights and a thunderous thriller soundtrack. Nixon first falters in Frost’s interview when shown TV footage of dead children and carpet bombing in Cambodia. Nixon has already mentioned how his sweating, caught by close-up camera, cost him his 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy. He says that “television and the close up… they create their own sets of meanings.” Baudrillard would agree. He thought that television constructed a “seamless realm of simulation” (7) – but in Frost / Nixon, television is a visual lie-detector, compelling the truth from its subjects. In a final monologue, Reston Jr. explains:

You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, trenches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot … David had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get: Richard Nixon’s face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist.

It’s a strange admission for a film that elevates its ‘Gotcha!’ interview to a “transformative moment in history” (8). Nixon’s answers don’t matter. The close-up tells all. The final shots of Frost / Nixon are again of Nixon’s face – but then we retreat behind him, allowing his face to be hidden in shadow, given privacy once more.

There’s one obvious point that needs to be made. The close-ups aren’t of Nixon’s face; they’re of Frank Langella’s face. Hollywood has always been fascinated by actors playing historical figures; a quick glance through the history of the Academy Awards will verify this fact. Critic Roger Ebert, for example, describes watching Frost / Nixon as having a period of “comparing the real with the performance”, which eventually fades, as Sheen and Langella aren’t simple mimics of their famous counterparts, but rather seek “to embody them” (9). The film fortifies this logic through the use of further impressions: researcher Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) does his own ‘Nixon’ that’s all gravelly voice and flapping jowls, and strangers mimic Frost’s signature TV dialogue incorrectly back at him. For Baudrillard, Disneyland is there to convince us that the rest of America is real by comparison, and Watergate was only exposed to convince us that the rest of politics are not criminal (10). These other mimics reinforce that the stars of Frost / Nixon must be the ‘real thing’.

Republican Vice-Presidental nominee Sarah Palin faced what the New York Times called “The Tina Fey problem”: the fact that comedian Fey’s impression of Palin on Saturday Night Live was so dead-on, it was making Palin seem less politically plausible (11). The answer? Palin eventually appeared as herself on the show, leaving Fey to say “What? The real one?” and quickly flee. The Republicans created a Tina Fey Problem for Obama, too, by publicly attributing his popularly to that of a celebrity, and not a serious politician. Their ads compared him to Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Being surrounded by celebrities didn’t make Obama look more authentic by comparison, and his staff quickly decided to keep him “away from celebrities as much as possible” (12). Sometimes comparisons are unavoidable, however. When Oliver Stone announced that he would be making a biopic of then still President George W. Bush, there was an immediate fascination with casting. With each new actor attached, news outlets ran their pictures side-by-side with their public counterparts, gauging similarities (13). 

In Stone’s film W., he traces Bush’s youthful indiscretions, born again Christianity, and desperation for his father’s approval, intercut with the White House meetings leading up to the current Iraq War. The performances run the full gamut of Ebert’s “embodiments”. Thandie Newton’s Condoleezza Rice is so broad that she could join a Saturday Night Live sketch at any moment; Josh Brolin’s George W. Bush Jr., however, is nuanced and believable. Does W. want to be taken seriously? There are moments of overt satire: “It’s A Wonderful World” playing over attempts to falsify evidence, or Bush and cohorts getting literally lost while walking and talking about Iraq. These sit uncomfortably next to family melodrama and soap opera sincerity – including a slow, portentous zoom onto a bottle to show Bush’s drinking problem. When Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) says to Bush “What I’m pressing for is: why? Why are we doing this?” he’s asking about Iraq, but could be asking about the movie itself. Critics wondered the same thing (14).

Screenwriter Stanley Weiser peppers the movie with as many ‘bushisms’ as possible: “misunderestimate”, “I’m the decider”, “Fool me – you can’t get fooled again” and more. They are not quoted in their original contexts, or presented as the origin moment of these sayings before they were publicly heard. As Jim Collins points out, there is no other form that exhibits the “already said” of postmodernism like TV, thanks to its endless reruns – and now also its 24-hour news coverage (15). W. presents a ‘greatest hits’ of Bush quotes from TV broadcasts, presented at random for audience sniggering. Just as with Fey’s ongoing Palin impressions, there barely seems enough of a contextual shift to call it satire – audiences just wanted to see Tina Fey as Palin, and hear her recirculating the same quotable lines. Throughout W., Stone uses the dreamy image of Bush in an empty baseball stadium, pitching to himself. At first, the sounds from the stands offer a familiar sporting background, but soon it starts to sound like white noise; empty static. 

While W. treats Bush’s media fragments as blank quotation, the televisual image is given greater gravity. It’s only when war looms – both the first Iraq war in the flashbacks, and the second in the film’s present day – that news footage creeps into Stone’s White House theatre. Suddenly Bush is seen digitally depicted addressing Congress, with the real John McCain and Nancy Pelosi listening in the crowd. Stone’s unsubtle about the importance of political perception: as Bush lands on the aircraft carrier for the infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, a TV pundit is seen announcing that “perception is everything”. The applause is quickly silenced by real footage of war, as Bush’s fabricated success is overwhelmed by the reality of the Iraq conflict. In the film’s final moments, even watching baseball on TV just draws him back into the surreal, empty stadium. Laura cheers him up by mentioning that his favourite play, Cats, is coming to town – perhaps knowing that theatre is a safer alternative.

It’s an enormous shift from the techniques that “breathe[d] new life into the legacy of biographical presentation” that Oliver Stone used in JFK (1991) (16). JFK seamlessly combined new footage with old into a powerful cinematic deluge – a “worst case scenario” of the way historical truth is lost amidst “the postmodern hall of mirrors” (17). When James Garrison (Kevin Costner) appears in JFK‘s lengthy courtroom scene, his monologue attempts to shape the last few hours’ onslaught of information. Similarly, traditional political wisdom holds that policy isn’t enough; you need a “narrative” to attract voters. (The New York Times guessed at seven of McCain’s attempted narratives, from “The Heroic Fighter vs. the Quitters” to “Leader vs. Celebrity” to “Team of Mavericks vs. Old-Style Washington”) (18). W. has no such monologue. A final, theatrical nightmare attempts to wrap up Bush’s story as psychological drama – the exact kind of “psychobabble” that W. rails against in the film – but it’s unconvincing. Brolin recreates the (again, infamous) press conference in which Bush was asked to identify the mistakes of his Presidency, and couldn’t think of one. While it’s presented word for word from the transcript, however, here it has new meaning. Stone’s Bush knows he’s made mistakes. His tragedy is that he doesn’t know what they are. In this single moment, the “already said” isn’t blank repetition, but is recontextualised with new emotion and perspective (19). 

In Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) narrates his own story almost immediately. Van Sant even gives away the ending: that Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to city office in the United States, will be assassinated. His recorded voiceover prepares for that exact eventuality. But Milk is about a particular time and place as it is about the man: San Francisco’s “The Castro” in the late 70s and early 80s. The opening credits contain a powerful sequence of gay oppression and arrests, seen through newspaper headlines and television footage. Unlike the showmanship of Stone’s JFK, though, in which he seamlessly integrated history into his own conspiratorial proof, Van Sant isn’t particularly interested in giving his own cast historical verisimilitude. He tints or filters some scenes to give them a Super-8 or video-cassette blur, but hardly attempts to hide the seams. Is it less moving because Van Sant’s footage of Milk’s candlelight memorial slides noticeably into footage of the real thing? This artifice protects the film from the accusations of “fabrication and illusion” leveled against Stone’s JFK (20). The sea of historical images in Milk – riots, vox pops, news broadcasts – even provide the film’s political villain, anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant. She only appears in the film via stock footage, so no actor is required to play her.

Rather than digital effects, Milk‘s manipulations can be theatrically unassuming. Van Sant places Scotty (James Franco) in a police riot simply by showing footage of the event, and then cutting to Harvey dabbing a cut on Scotty’s forehead. Voila! Scotty was there. As Harvey says: “Politics is about theatre.” Is it this quiet sense of unreality that prevents Milk from ever becoming too ugly? Apart from the assassination – in which we see a bullet hit Milk’s upraised hand – it’s a clean, bloodless film. When Harvey attends the scene of a gay-bashing, Van Sant uses a sudden burst of stylistic excess. The violent aftermath is a reflection in a shiny whistle used to attract help, far from grimy reality. Similarly, critics complained about the “neutered” Harvey that appears on screen (21). We see him flirting, or roughhousing with sexual partners, but there’s nothing approaching sex itself. Cleve’s (Emile Hirsch) prostitution is glossed over in a single line. Harvey is told he can’t simply campaign on negativity, and the film reflects this in his last exaltation: “You gotta give them hope!”

The first words to appear in the end credits of Milk are: “Special thanks to the Academy Award winning film The Times Of Harvey Milk for its enormous contribution to the making of this movie.” Van Sant’s Milk borrows heavily from Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary – not only through shared archival footage, but even the basic storytelling structure. The question is inevitable: why, then, watch the movie instead of the documentary? Actor’s simulations offer their own distinct pleasures, but it’s also true that archival footage can feel less immediate that restaged drama. It’s the way that everything is made public in a biopic. In Frost/Nixon, we see a drunken phone call that even Nixon doesn’t remember; in Milk, we’re privy to all of Harvey’s private moments. Conversely, access to Milk’s murderer, Dan White (Josh Brolin), remains limited. Epstein’s documentary shows White as a complicated man, not just the obvious cinema “heavy” he is here (22). In Milk, White seems more disturbed by Harvey’s ability to generate publicity than by his sexuality, and is pictured sitting alone at home, watching Milk on television, his thoughts unknowable. Milk doesn’t represent White’s moment of fame after the shooting, relegating his trial and its infamous ‘Twinkie Defense’ to a footnote. 

Langella’s Nixon and Brolin’s Bush never come face to face with those they portray, but Sean Penn comes close. During the end credits, images of the actors fade into images of their real-life inspiration. It’s an attempt to reassure audiences that the artificiality they’ve just witnessed can still satisfy their need for documentary images of the real (23). Do we understand more about Milk after watching his doppelganger than his own documentary? More about Nixon after watching the “single snapshot” of Langella’s close-up than Nixon’s own? More about Brolin’s W. – as he looks into the camera while the soundtrack plays the Blackwood Brothers singing “Down deep in my soul…” – than after the last eight years? All these films exhibit what Linda Williams calls the rich contradiction of our “postmodern deluge” of images – simultaneously suggesting that access to ‘real’ truth has been lost, while also acknowledging that the image has power to move audiences to “a new appreciation of a previously unknown truth” (24).

This contradiction rings especially true to a country that was hyperbolically divided into ‘real’ and ‘fake’ halves during the election process. When Sarah Palin claimed that she represented “the real America”, Jon Stewart fired back a blistering retort on Daily Show, concluding:

So, even if John McCain doesn’t win the ‘election’ in ‘America, he’ll still be president of ‘real America’ — the America that matters, the one that Sarah Palin will still take questions from … Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘Am I one of these un-Americans I’ve been hearing so much about?’ All this real America and fake America can get a little hard to figure out (25).

Perhaps the final word on the election, then, should belong to another artificial man, simulated by computer and coloured science-fiction blue: the superhuman Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009). Based on a 20 year old comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is an ‘alternate history’ of America in which superheroes won the Vietnam War and an aged Richard Nixon remains in power. He’s comic-book Nixon come to life, mimicry turned to caricature, described as a “hambone imitation” with a “rubber nose” (26). In a bravura credits sequence, Snyder guides us on a transmedia tour of this alternate America. Instead of inserting its characters into history, however, Watchmen simply absorbs all media, all history, into its own slick hyperreality – a space of “fabulous proportions, but without space or dimensions” (27). First we see the familiar ‘Zapruder’ footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – but the camera seamlessly moves to a never-before-seen angle where we see that superhero-gone-bad The Comedian has fired the fatal gunshot. The sprawling narrative of Watchmen concerns a massive conspiracy. Baudrillard would hold that Watchmen’s simulated America and its fabricated politics is just another, existing only to make us believe that the winners and losers of the 2008 election were, in fact, the real thing.

(1) Chris Welch, ‘Beam me up, Wolf! CNN debuts election-night “hologram”‘ CNN 6 November 2008 http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/11/06/hologram.yellin/index.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(2) Asher Moses, ‘CNN’s “holograms” just smoke and mirrors’, Sydney Morning Herald 7 November 2008 http://www.smh.com.au/news/home/technology/cnns-hologram-hoax/2008/11/07/1225561097423.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(3) Ben Arnon, ‘How the Obama “Hope” Poster Reached a Tipping Point and Became a Cultural Phenomenon: An Interview With the Artist Shepard Fairey’, Huffington Post 13 October 2008 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-arnon/how-the-obama-hope-poster_b_133874.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(4) Leigh Holmwood, ‘Barack Obama gives Daily Show biggest ever audience’, The Guardian 31 October 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/oct/31/ustelevision-barackobama Accessed 11 March 2009.

(5) Jean Baudrillard, ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Second Edition), California, Stanford UP, 2001, p.170.

(6) Linda Williams, ‘Mirrors Without Memory: Truth, History, and the New Documentary’, in Alan Rosenthal & John Corner (eds), New Challenges for Documentary (Second Edition), Manchester, Manchester UP, 2005, p.65.

(7) Jim Collins, ‘Postmodern Television’, in Robert C. Allen (ed.), Channels of Discourse, Reassembled (Second Edition), London, Routledge, 1992, pp.331-2.

(8) David Denby, ‘Curious Cases’, The New Yorker, 9 February 2009 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2009/02/09/090209crci_cinema_denby Accessed 11 March 2009.

9) Roger Ebert, ‘Frost / Nixon‘, Chicago Sun-Times 10 December 2008 http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081210/REVIEWS/812109987 Accessed 11 March 2009.

(10) Jean Baudrillard, pp.174-5.

(11) Alessandra Stanley, ‘On “SNL” It’s the Real Sarah Palin, Looking Like a Real Entertainer’, New York Times 19 October 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/20/arts/television/20watch.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(12) Ryan Lizza, ‘Battle Plans: How Obama Won’, The New Yorker 17 November 2008 http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/17/081117fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all

13) For example, see Marcus Baram, ‘Stone Fills Out Cast for Bush Movie’, ABC News 1 April 2008 http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Vote2008/story?id=4563558&page=1 Accessed 11 March 2009.

(14) For example, see Manohla Dargis, ‘Oliver Stone’s Vision Thing: Bush, the Family’, New York Times 17 October 2008 http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/movies/17ston.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(15) Jim Collins, pp.333-4.

(16) Ian Scott, American Politics in Film, Edinburgh, Edinburgh UP, 2000, p.146.

(17) Linda Williams, pp.60-1.

(18) Robert Draper, ‘The Making (and Remaking) of McCain’, New York Times 22 October http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/26/magazine/26mccain-t.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(19) Jim Collins, p.333.

(20) Ian Scott, p.147.

(21) Mark Simpson, ‘There’s just one problem with Milk: it castrates its hero’, The Guardian 28 January 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/jan/28/milk-gus-van-sant-sean-penn Accessed 11 March 2009.

(22) Hilton Als, ‘Revolutionary Road’, New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2009. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22411 11 March 2009

(23) Linda Williams, p.60.

(24) Ibid.

(25) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central, 20 October 2008.

(26) Geoff Boucher, ‘Is “Watchmen” the “Fight Club” of superhero films?’ LA Times 10 March 2009 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2009/03/is-watchmen-the.html Accessed 11 March 2009.

(27) Jean Baudrillard, p.175.