Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Christmas miracles and otherwise

On December 23 I received an e-mail from the president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Network of Strength. The subject heading was "We can't wait for tomorrow's cure." What great timing for such momentous, uplifting news (unless you're Jesus, but he always upstages everyone else born on December 25, so it's about time he was knocked down a peg)!

Unfortunately, Christmas Eve came and went without any announcement of a cure. I felt used, like anyone who's ever sat through endless teasers on a local newscast just to find out it's the chili at Wendy's that contains human fingers, not the burgers or fries or Frostys or anything I would normally order there. And then when you discover that the chili never contained fingers, that it was all a hoax concocted by a customer who decided to try a unique approach to asking for a refund, you wonder if you'll ever be able to trust anyone again.

Speaking of hoaxes, I saw Lasse Hallstrom's 2007 film The Hoax over Christmas. I think it might be my favorite movie of the past two years. Based on a true story chronicled in the book of the same name, it stars Richard Gere as author Clifford Irving, who convinced his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that he'd been contacted by Howard Hughes to help him write his autobiography. Never mind that Irving's previous book was Fake!, a biography of art forger Elmyr de Hory. Though McGraw-Hill was suspicious, they weren't about to let the autobiography of the world's most mysterious recluse billionaire get away. Irving proceeded to write the book with his friend and researcher Richard Suskind (played by Alfred Molina, who has good comic chemistry with Gere, an actor who gets better with age as his vanity continues to fade), thinking no one would be able to discredit what he wrote since Hughes would never surface to contradict him.

What I loved most about The Hoax is that it's based on a true story that's based on an elaborate lie. Movies based on true stories always take certain liberties with the facts for the sake of dramatic license—movies are "life with the boring parts cut out," as someone once said—and whenever we watch a movie, we buy into the lie when we pay for our ticket. It's in the contract.

Frost/Nixon, for instance, fictionalizes certain events surrounding the 1977 televised interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon in order to build suspense and provide motivation for the "characters," and just as no court cases in real life proceed anything like the ones you see on TV shows such as Boston Legal, it's hard to imagine that neither Frost nor Nixon had any kind of poker face during the real interviews. (You can see clips from them on YouTube.)

But all of it works in the name of compelling drama, even if, like me, you leave the theater and are crushed when you read a review that says a piece of damning information against Nixon that appears at the 11th hour in the film had been in Frost's possession much earlier. (And now the truth: I read that in a review before I saw the movie. But it works better in terms of this plot if I say the opposite.)

It's hard to know what's fact and what's fiction in The Hoax, but that works in the film's favor, especially in scenes where Irving believes he's been visited by Hughes's own private CIA but can't prove it exists outside of his imagination, just as he imagined entire decades of Hughes's life before committing them to the page. That's why it's funny that the Wikipedia page on Irving contains the following sentence: "Irving ... decried the film as a distortion of the story, in particular citing the film's portrayals of himself, Suskind and Edith Irving as inaccurate and claiming that the film added events and scenes that did not occur in real life."

And around and around we go.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Hoax concerns Richard Nixon, in fact, and the conclusion of the film wants us to believe that the Watergate break-in was executed in part to retrieve advance copies of the Hughes autobiography, which reportedly contained dirt on Nixon and had been sent to the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. I don't know if that's true, and part of me doesn't care since The Hoax plays such an entertaining mind game.

Frank Langella, who plays Nixon in Frost/Nixon and whose performance is the best part of the movie, said in a New York Times article on January 4 that there isn't much personal information about him on the Internet or elsewhere because "I'm not in the business of confessing, and I'm deeply offended by people who are."

If he doesn't want to confess whether or not ex-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg was good in bed or not, that really is his business, but it makes me wonder what he thought of Nixon's partial confession of guilt in the final Frost-Nixon interview about Watergate. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play the movie is based on, implies that one reason Nixon agreed to the interviews was because he felt guilty about his guilt, that he needed to confess in order to move forward.

In the film James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) says he'll take on the job of researcher for Frost if he's guaranteed that the Nixon interviews will give the pardoned president the trial he never had, not make the viewing audience sympathetic to him in any way. But in that New York Times article Langella says he knew that "whatever I did, I could never satisfy some people, especially the ones who just want to hate Nixon ... But why shouldn't he be human? Why shouldn't he be sympathetic and touching, along with all the rest—vicious, cruel, a liar and a crook?"

Langella, Morgan, and director Ron Howard do succeed in making the audience sympathetic to Nixon, or maybe I'm just speaking for myself as someone who was born after he'd resigned from office. For one thing, in terms of historical context, Nixon seems a hell of a lot smarter than George W. Bush ever was or ever will be, and unlike Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he inherited the Vietnam war from previous administrations, though he did escalate it.

These points were brought up after a prerelease screening of Frost/Nixon on December 1 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., attended by Howard, Morgan, and Reston. According to political columnist Roger Simon, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace objected to Reston after he said, "The younger generation feels Richard Nixon was railroaded out of office and what he did was trivial compared to what George W. Bush did." Wallace argued that Bush's post-9/11 actions were done to "protect this country" against its mortal enemies, not its political enemies, as was the case with Nixon.

I can see both sides, and I've heard that Oliver Stone's W., which opened last October but faded quickly, turned Bush into something of a sympathetic figure too. Howard said at the Wilson Center screening that he shot an alternate ending for Frost/Nixon and showed it to some test audiences, who responded well to it and wrote on their comment cards after the test screenings that it showed how Nixon had "changed" as a person, making him more sympathetic. Howard, perhaps bowing to the pressure of American history in this case more than he would have, say, with Tom Hanks's character in the mermaid comedy Splash (1984), decided not to use the alternate ending.

Even so, Nixon remains a tragic, sympathetic figure in the film. If that seems like a hoax to some viewers, it will still remain the truth for others. Besides, it's not like he ever put a finger in someone's chili. Nixon was tricky, not pranky.

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