The Truths That Television Can Tell

I noticed it only months later. It certainly wasn't intentional. I chose several dozen photographs to illustrate my book Nixonland, pretty much a random selection of galvanizing images illustrating the general theme of social conflict in the American 1960s and 1970s. And in almost half of them, just as if I had planned it, the accoutrements of media -- microphones, cameras, tape recorders, TV lights, cue cards -- crowd their way into the frame.

I knew that one of the unspoken subjects of my book was the way, in the 1960s and 1970s, the electronic mediation of history became central to how history was experienced as such. I quoted Abbie Hoffman's watchword for making social change -- "I fight through the jungles of TV" -- and argued the same could be said for 27-year-old Roger Ailes, whose strategy for social change was getting Richard Nixon elected through hyper-frenetic commercials and introducing into our civic life the fake, make-for-TV "town meeting." Angry silent-majority letter-writers blamed the ubiquitous presence of TV cameras themselves for the "police riot" that broke out during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, as if those contraptions in plastic and metal had been controlling and not merely capturing the action. But if anything, I realized, I had underplayed the influence of electronic media in my book.It was recorded, therefore it was -- the ontological formulation is considerably less verbally fluid than Descartes' cogito sum, ergo es but appropriately so, because it is something that can't be conveyed through words. Which is the genius of Ron Howard's new movie about the kind of truths television can tell.

Alan Pakula did something similar in a movie about print, his film version of All the President's Men. The opening image: an IBM Selectric ball mashing ink into paper. The keynote of Frost/Nixon -- the electronic mediation of history becoming history -- is similarly announced straight off: The opening montage is of Richard Nixon's infamous tape recordings ("Kick them in the teeth!"); these soon bleed into TV-grained images of distinguished men announcing the events of Watergate with authority. Next come the supporting characters in the movie, David Frost's TV crew, depicted as talking heads, like they're in a documentary -- like the film itself actually is a documentary. When the action pulls away from the talking-head-and-stock-footage format and opens out onto actual scenes as in a conventional movie, those moments almost felt to me like a Discovery Channel doc: figures who merely vaguely resemble, say, Mary Kaye Letourneau (as Frank Langella merely vaguely resembles Nixon) re-enacting real events for our voyeuristic eye.

I loved that. I loved how the inescapable atmosphere of televisuality in Frost/Nixon serves as a daring argument about the way TV can be most virtuous precisely when it acts most like TV.

Consider A Face in the Crowd, Elia Kazan's horrified fantasia about how a country boy with a talent for strumming a guitar and looking sincere on TV rides the medium to a nearly fascistic measure of power, before a disillusioned newspaper reporter exposes him. The picture, which came out in 1957, clearly was Elvis-fueled but also, as I argued in Nixonland, Nixon-fueled: Nixon's infamous Checkers speech in 1952 was the first time a slick operator wormed his way into the public's heart -- sans guitar -- in this way. As such, it set the terms of an argument made forcefully ever since: TV is not a medium of truth but bamboozlement, and only newspapermen -- like Walter Lippmann, who called the Checkers speech, "with all the magnification of modern electronics, simply mob law," possess the moral superiority to check it. Now consider a film that arrived in theaters shortly before Frost interviewed Nixon. In Network (1976), newspapermen are all but absent, and TV has sent society plumb berserk. "You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you!" the demented TV newsman bellows. "In God's name, you people are the real thing! We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. ... Turn them off!"

That's the cliché: The first step on the path to enlightenment is to turn off your TV. But what's frustrating about these jeremiads is that, well, TV is also a realm of reality. And it is also a realm of lies. All media are -- in the same sense any medium is a lie, a mere mediation of something else. Frost/Nixon transcends the cynicism of the Face in the Crowd-cum-Network to suggest that TV can also be, as Picasso supposedly said of art, a lie that tells the truth. How and why this can be so makes up the dramatic arc of Frost/Nixon.

When we first meet Nixon and his team, they're writing RN's memoirs by committee, like scriptwriters (significantly, the team member the camera dwells on is the one who later became famous as a TV star: Nixon post-presidential aide Diane Sawyer). Always, recalling Peter Morgan's original play, our attention is drawn more to Richard Nixon's face as it shows up on the tube than when it shows up in "real life." We see key historical moments unfold -- the Ford pardon, the Cambodia invasion -- via Nixon watching them on TV. And then there are the knowing winks to the history of Nixon's, shall we say, checkered history with the medium, such as a running joke about the infamous bead of sweat on his upper lip that legend has lost him the first TV debate with John F. Kennedy. Howard even slips in one especially sharp visual joke -- lost on anyone who didn't watch a lot of TV in the 1970s -- involving the iconic public-service announcement of the stoic Indian crying about pollution. The vertigo is structural: We're never even really sure whether the dramatic breaking point in the film -- a late-night phone call between Nixon and Frost -- actually happened or was just a kind of TV show running in David Frost's head.

Because we all, always, have TV shows running in our head. That is part of what makes TV real. And why those who master TV are too important to merely dismiss, instead of respect, even, sometimes revere. David Frost was the "most unlikely of white knights," the talking head played by Oliver Platt says early in the film. But with a decided advantage, the character who narrates, Scotty Reston Jr., who is played by Sam Rockwell, responds: "He understood television." Then Frost asks why Nixon announced his resignation at 9 a.m. Eastern time. This would be 6 a.m. on the West Coast. No one would see it; "Why didn't he wait?" The question, the viewer knows, answers itself: so no one will watch it. After all these years, Nixon understands TV, too -- maybe even better than Frost. Or does he? The drama is structured by precisely this battle royale: these two men's struggle to control the affect given off by the screen during the broadcast of the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews.

To reveal how David Frost ends up winning the engagement would be to spoil the plot. The theme, on the other hand, bears scrutiny. It is structured by Reston wrestling with what TV means to him as a man who has written four books about Richard Nixon, who hates Richard Nixon, but who is haunted by the frustration not merely that Richard Nixon was never tried in a court of law but that the wider public has never been convinced of his essential perfidy, despite the millions of words of journalistic arguments meant to convince the public that it should.

The Reston character is a common type in political novels and films, from All the King's Men to Primary Colors: a factotum who receives a political education at the feet of the master, recording his thoughts for the benefit of the viewer's/reader's own moral instruction. Only this time the master is not the politician but, of all things, a middle-brow chat-show host, and the moral lesson that we've come to expect -- the "vast wasteland" tells lies; "real" people, usually journalists, expose the lies -- is subverted.

To be sure, it's not the only cinema morality play in which a TV figure is the hero, not the villain; one thinks, for instance, of The Insider, about how a 60 Minutes producer exposed tobacco-industry lies. The difference is that in a movie like that, the villain only gets captured because the hero apes Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men -- which is exactly what, in the logic of the film, the likes of James Reston Jr. had tried and failed with Nixon. The key monologue in Frost/Nixon is Reston's epiphany that it took a close-up of Richard Nixon's face -- one artfully arrived at via weeks of intellectual preparation combined with television craft -- to convince the public of the true nature of the man.

That the counterintuitive point is made so convincingly surely has something to do with the fact that Howard, who growing up on and through TV, is the most intimate student of the medium imaginable. As a child, he co-starred in the "Andy Griffith Show." As a teenager, he starred in the sitcom "Happy Days." In interviews he has frequently related his ongoing obsession as a kid at watching how television got made. Then, one imagines he would go home to the "real world" only to always be rediscovering how TV had made him: how the way other people saw him would always be determined by the magnification of modern electronics. He learned something from that, Frost/Nixon suggests, something that anti-TV snobs should seriously consider. Yes, it's true we live our lives saturated by the tube. That need not be grounds merely for despair. Television, in the hands of the craftsman who understands it, can sometimes tell moral truths in a unique and profound way.