Most of the time when you ask someone for his favorite president you get a very boring answer.
The most common response is going to be Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps you'll get Teddy Roosevelt if you're dealing with an especially spirited, independent individual. If the person you're talking to is a liberal Democrat maybe they'll say Franklin Roosevelt; their ideological opposites in the Republican Party will respond with Ronald Reagan. Especially delusional hyper-partisans might even be so bold as to proclaim Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
I take a different approach in choosing a favorite president, though. I don't judge a favorite president based on "best" whoever did the best things for the country and the world. No, my principle criteria include most entertaining, most audacious, and especially, most badass. And so with that mode of appreciation in mind there is a single Commander in Chief who towers before all others: Richard Milhous Nixon, my absolute favorite president.
There are many, many reasons Nixon holds this place for me, but first among them is a single quotation. In 1977, several years after resigning in disgrace, Nixon uttered a sentence so spellbinding that no presidential comment before or since has matched it: "Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."
The line is the climactic moment of Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," a film that dramatizes the story behind a famous series of interviews between British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella.)
The film starts with Nixon's resignation in 1974 and shows as the president makes his way to the helicopter and flashes his trademark double-handed peace sign. As Frost watches on television an idea begins to grow in his mind as he realizes that hundreds of millions of people must be watching.
Both Frost and Nixon exist in similar banishment from the peaks of cultural respect that they both crave. Frost's recent American talk show has failed and he's taken his act to Australia where he's known for interviewing celebrities. Nixon lives a quiet life in California, looked upon with contempt by an American people craving closure for the wounds of the Watergate years.
So Frost sets out to conduct a televised interview with Nixon, eventually getting Nixon to sign on to the project when he offered him $600,000, much of it from his own pocket. As the project came together, though, Frost encountered roadblocks. The networks and the political culture didn't take him seriously. His initial financial backers and advertisers were getting nervous, some even backing out.
Frost had staked his money and reputation on the interviews and there was only one way it could pay off: if he managed to give Nixon the trial the American people wanted and to get the conviction. In pursuit of this goal Frost hired James Reston, Jr (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) as investigators to pour through the records and develop questions and strategies for an interrogation.
And so as the interviews begin they become a contest between Frost and Nixon as the ex-president dodges questions and goes on at length about mundane subjects and the talk show host struggles to gain the upper hand and become a journalist.
It's a fun, engaging film, especially for politicos. However, five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture, seem a tad excessive and perhaps demonstrative of the Academy's love for Opie. The film, based off of screenwriter Peter Morgan's play, never seems able to really jump up to a level of intensity of cinematic proportions.
We get a picture of Frost and Nixon but only a limited one. The film is at its best when it begins to penetrate their depth. One of its most electrifying scenes is an entirely fictionalized episode in which a drunken Nixon calls Frost in his hotel room and reveals that he's read a biographical file one of his aids wrote. Nixon notes that he and Frost are similar, both men who rose from the bottom to the top by sheer talent and determination. The film needed more introspective material like this.
Similarly, there's tremendous potential within the supporting characters who are only marginally developed. Reston is representative of the hard anti-Nixon faction who craves to see a monster destroyed. Kevin Bacon plays Jack Brennan, Nixon's loyal, conservative chief of staff who wants to protect his boss who he sees as an American hero who merely made a few mistakes. These characters are representative of two different ideological approaches to the subject and it would have been great to see them and the other secondary characters developed more.
The film avoids the trap to which the recent fact-based film "Valkyrie" fell victim. We know from the beginning that Frost is going to "win." The film isn't about the suspense of who will triumph in the contest, but rather the drama of exploring the characters involved within it. In this task it accomplishes its goal to a moderate degree, if only it could have gone further. The film really should have had another half hour to more fully flesh out the potential of the fascinating characters it possessed.
Finally the film is perhaps best considered as another fascinating look at the ghost of Richard Nixon, who if not our country's greatest president, was, as his number of cinematic incarnations demonstrates, its most entertaining.