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View Full Version : Frost/Nixon and the line between history and fiction


Dread Pirate Jimbo
01-03-2009, 11:26 PM
I saw a piece on BBC News the other day talking about the new Frost/Nixon movie and how it had taken some liberties with the dialog between our principles as recorded in the actual interviews (as also discussed briefly here (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=497920&highlight=frost+nixon)).

While I understand that some liberties must be taken from time-to-time to effectively tell a story based on actual history in movie form, I find this sort of revisionist history to be pretty sketchy. Basically, the film makers (and I assume the author of the stage play) are re-writing the events we have hard evidence for and presenting them to the audience as fact. Notwithstanding that the interviews are fairly easily reviewed online these days, I don't think the average movie goer would be likely to verify the information as presented, which, to me, makes this type of fudging more than a little dishonest.

Again, I readily concede that the events, motivations, and talks leading up to the on-camera interviews are matters for speculation and are open to best guesses by the writers. Creative license is only way to make any of that work. But the stuff that is a matter of public record? I'm not comfortable with that being fundamentally messed with.

ANyway, I'm interested in your thoughts. Am I just overreacting? Is my inner journalist creeping out when I should just relax and enjoy the "entertainment based on a true story?" Or is this an appalling act of revisionism, putting words in the mouth of a man who is no longer around to defend himself?

RealityChuck
01-03-2009, 11:35 PM
Doesn't bother me. Who's going to go to the transcripts and compare? The key is whether the work is true to the people involved, not whether it got every word correctly.

Also, some very good drama has been made by ignoring the truth and telling a story based on the characters. Nixon's attitude in, say The Public Burning probably didn't fit him at all, but it was a great book.

An author has a duty to throw characters under the bus if it fits the story.

Leaffan
01-03-2009, 11:52 PM
Things that are a matter of public record should be transcribed ver batim as far as I'm concerned. For example, Oliver Stone fucked with the private and personal life of Jim Morrison in the Doors movie. I do not like that type of manipulation.

Beware of Doug
01-03-2009, 11:54 PM
The key is whether the work is true to the people involved, not whether it got every word correctly.And as we all know, Dick Nixon really was a scenery-chewing Frankenstein with a fake Sean Connery accent.

Cat Whisperer
01-04-2009, 01:15 AM
Doesn't bother me. Who's going to go to the transcripts and compare? The key is whether the work is true to the people involved, not whether it got every word correctly.<snip>
From what I understand of the "liberties" taken, Ron Howard has put words in Nixon's mouth that he never said (and would never have said), which seems to me like a liberty that crosses the line. People shouldn't *have* to go to the transcripts and compare; a director should not be changing fundamental details of something as verifiable as a tv interview and representing it as what actually happened.

I'm not having any luck finding this interview; anybody else want to have a kick at it?

Eyebrows 0f Doom
01-04-2009, 01:21 AM
From what I understand of the "liberties" taken, Ron Howard has put words in Nixon's mouth that he never said (and would never have said), which seems to me like a liberty that crosses the line. People shouldn't *have* to go to the transcripts and compare; a director should not be changing fundamental details of something as verifiable as a tv interview and representing it as what actually happened.

I'm not having any luck finding this interview; anybody else want to have a kick at it?

Just a nitpick, but unless he's rewritten the play, it isn't Ron Howard whose putting words in Nixon's mouth, but the author Peter Morgan. I saw both the play & film, and the dialogue was pretty much exact as I remember it from the play.

Baldwin
01-04-2009, 01:49 AM
I saw a piece on BBC News the other day talking about the new Frost/Nixon movie and how it had taken some liberties with the dialog between our principles as recorded in the actual interviews (as also discussed briefly here (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=497920&highlight=frost+nixon)).I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm thinking of getting the new DVD release of the actual interviews. I guess you could do a direct comparison.

bytheway
01-04-2009, 01:58 AM
Here's the view point of James Reston Jr., a researcher for David Frost, in this month's Smithsonian magazine (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Presence-Frost-Nixon.html)

Tapioca Dextrin
01-04-2009, 02:26 AM
The film does not pretend to be a documentary. It's certainly based on something that happened in real life, but at the end of the day, it's a Hollywood movie, not a history lecture.

Horatio Hellpop
01-04-2009, 04:10 AM
Just a nitpick, but unless he's rewritten the play, it isn't Ron Howard whose putting words in Nixon's mouth, but the author Peter Morgan. I saw both the play & film, and the dialogue was pretty much exact as I remember it from the play.

No. A film's author is the director, not the screenwriter or author of the source material. This is the case regardless of how faithful the adaptation is to its source.

RealityChuck
01-04-2009, 10:57 AM
And as we all know, Dick Nixon really was a scenery-chewing Frankenstein with a fake Sean Connery accent.If it works in the movie, then he was.

And while the show was an absolute disaster in all levels, I had no problem with the idea of the portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer either.

Or, to pick a better example, Mel Brook's portrayal of King Louis XVI in The History of the World, Part I.

Or the portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Or the portrayal of Albert Einstein in IQ.

Hell, even the penguins in The March of the Penguins (no, it is not a story of love). Stick to the History Channel, then.

Or many others.

It's fiction. If you go into it thinking it's fact (or that it portrays fact), you're at the wrong movie.

De La Rue
01-04-2009, 12:43 PM
On the other hand, historical fiction has a large influence on people's perceptions of history and historical figures. Put "Based on a True Story" before anything and someone will believe it.

pseudotriton ruber ruber
01-04-2009, 02:23 PM
In as close to a formal study of the phenomenon you can come without doing a formal study, my students over the last few years are totally outraged (at least half of them) by the historical distortions in "based on a true story" movie, even after being exposed to other such movies in the last few weeks.

Thudlow Boink
01-04-2009, 02:39 PM
From what I understand of the "liberties" taken, Ron Howard has put words in Nixon's mouth that he never said (and would never have said), which seems to me like a liberty that crosses the line.Ron Howard put words into the Grinch's mouth that he never said (and would never have said).

Dread Pirate Jimbo
01-04-2009, 04:46 PM
On the other hand, historical fiction has a large influence on people's perceptions of history and historical figures. Put "Based on a True Story" before anything and someone will believe it.

This is where I take issue, particularly in a situation such as this, where there is an actual, irrefutable record of at least some of the events. The masses in my experience are much more comfortable with allowing their entertainment to inform their world and if this movie says Nixon confessed on national TV, they aren't going to spend a bunch of time checking sources to see if it actually happened.

I'd be much more comfortable if they called this movie "Brost/Fixon," with a couple of fictionalized characters based on some real people, in which case the author can make up whatever reality he chooses. I don't think "Based On A True Story" is an adequate tip-off to the viewer that the writers were just making shit up.

cactus waltz
01-04-2009, 05:21 PM
I think I must side with Dread Pirate Jimbo. I saw Frost/Nixon honestly believing it was a faithful transcript of the real thing. We aren't even given many clues to say that it isn't. Especially to me, a European born in the 1980's, it'd be hard to tell that it's not accurate.

It's hard to draw the line and it's all about the presentation. I won't mistake the cyborg Nixon in Futurama for the real thing. But a movie like this which is presented like a time-piece, centered around an important event... It becomes more difficult.

I am reminded of a book released last year or so. It was a fictional book starring Ingemar Bergman in the lead role (some six months before he passed away). Even though it was all made up, it could have been taken as a biography by an unattentive reader. Bergman himself was reported to not be able to sleep at night because of it.

Deeg
01-04-2009, 06:16 PM
On one hand I want to slap people who get their history from Hollywood movies. On the other hand we have enough ignorance in the world and we don't need Hollywood adding to it.

I get highly annoyed by books/movies that put up a facade of historical accuracy. Don't get me started on The Da Vinci Code.

RealityChuck
01-04-2009, 07:14 PM
This is where I take issue, particularly in a situation such as this, where there is an actual, irrefutable record of at least some of the events. The masses in my experience are much more comfortable with allowing their entertainment to inform their world and if this movie says Nixon confessed on national TV, they aren't going to spend a bunch of time checking sources to see if it actually happened.That sounds awfully condescending to me.

Hell, even as a ten year old, I would say, "That's not real. It's a movie." I don't think people today are less smart than I was.

I'd be much more comfortable if they called this movie "Brost/Fixon," with a couple of fictionalized characters based on some real people, in which case the author can make up whatever reality he chooses. I don't think "Based On A True Story" is an adequate tip-off to the viewer that the writers were just making shit up.For a few minor variations on the transcript that require you be reading along with it in order to notice? I think not.

"Based on a true story" merely says it's based on a true story. Based. Not that it is a true story.

crypto
01-04-2009, 09:13 PM
That sounds awfully condescending to me.

Hell, even as a ten year old, I would say, "That's not real. It's a movie." I don't think people today are less smart than I was.

For a few minor variations on the transcript that require you be reading along with it in order to notice? I think not.

"Based on a true story" merely says it's based on a true story. Based. Not that it is a true story.


You are being a bit naive.

The Cohen Brothers famously put "Based on a true story" at the beginning of their movie Fargo, and more than a few people believed it. Did it matter for a movie like Fargo? No. But for something based on an actual event, like the Frost/Nixon interviews, a great story can be told without distorting the actual exchange.

If you don't think Hollywood can re-write history, just revisit JFK, and the flack Oliver Stone received.

You and I may not watch movies for our history lessons, but that doesn't mean the general public has the same standard. Few will seek out the real transcripts. Nixon had enough faults... if the story wasn't interesting without distorting the historical record, why not just make up a fictional interview with Nixon and whoever? Using Frost implies that the interview exchanges are accurate... the behind-the-scene intrigue is up for massaging, but not the interviews.

Of course, YMMV.

Cat Whisperer
01-04-2009, 10:44 PM
That sounds awfully condescending to me.
Have you *met* people? They think professional wrestling is real (and even more disturbing, watch it on purpose).
Hell, even as a ten year old, I would say, "That's not real. It's a movie." I don't think people today are less smart than I was.

For a few minor variations on the transcript that require you be reading along with it in order to notice? I think not.

"Based on a true story" merely says it's based on a true story. Based. Not that it is a true story.
People are indeed going to watch this movie and think they're getting some good old-fashioned history (in their preferred method of delivery, a movie) - they're not going to be watching it with a critical eye to the historical inaccuracies. I think there is a significant difference between scenes in a movie that you can reasonably expect to be completely made up (fantastical happenings, private conversations, etc.), and things that you expect to stick to what actually happened (like interviews).

I don't think Ron Howard is doing the world a favour by increasing the amount of ignorance and disinformation in the world.

RealityChuck
01-04-2009, 10:54 PM
You and I may not watch movies for our history lessons, but that doesn't mean the general public has the same standard. Few will seek out the real transcripts. Nixon had enough faults... if the story wasn't interesting without distorting the historical record, why not just make up a fictional interview with Nixon and whoever? Using Frost implies that the interview exchanges are accurate... the behind-the-scene intrigue is up for massaging, but not the interviews.But how does it matter if there's a change in the transcripts? The historical record isn't distorted in the slightest; Nixon said the same things in the transcripts that he did in the movie portrayal -- just not the same exact words or perhaps in the same order.

By making changes, you increase the dramatic effect. The movie becomes less dull and much more interesting. The OP makes no claim that the film distorts Nixon's meaning and general intentions, just that it didn't use the exact words of the transcript. How on Earth is that a problem?

If the transcript reads "Uh, well, the President . . . the president can do . . . what he wants in something. . . things of this nature where national security (cough) excuse me . . . is involved . . . it is not a crime" and you change that to "The president can do what he wants where national security is involved. It is not a crime." how is that distorting history?

And, the bigger question, would you rather be accurate and dull, or make minor changes -- that not even David Frost probably noticed -- to make the movie more interesting?

As for JFK, it's not like Stone made up the conspiracy theory. His problem was simply that he pretended that the film was a documentary telling the truth about the assassination when he knew it was fiction. It was a great marketing ploy, but had nothing to do with the truth of the matter.

Hampshire
01-05-2009, 10:22 AM
By making changes, you increase the dramatic effect. The movie becomes less dull and much more interesting. The OP makes no claim that the film distorts Nixon's meaning and general intentions, just that it didn't use the exact words of the transcript. How on Earth is that a problem?



If the real life story was that great to begin with why attempt to increase the dramatic effect? Hearing now in this thread that changes were made actually makes me NOT want to see the movie.
I rather see an accurate attempt at retelling a true story (boring blandness and all) than hollywood trying to spice it up for my benefit.

Dread Pirate Jimbo
01-05-2009, 12:33 PM
But how does it matter if there's a change in the transcripts? The historical record isn't distorted in the slightest; Nixon said the same things in the transcripts that he did in the movie portrayal -- just not the same exact words or perhaps in the same order.

By making changes, you increase the dramatic effect. The movie becomes less dull and much more interesting. The OP makes no claim that the film distorts Nixon's meaning and general intentions, just that it didn't use the exact words of the transcript. How on Earth is that a problem?

If the transcript reads "Uh, well, the President . . . the president can do . . . what he wants in something. . . things of this nature where national security (cough) excuse me . . . is involved . . . it is not a crime" and you change that to "The president can do what he wants where national security is involved. It is not a crime." how is that distorting history?

And, the bigger question, would you rather be accurate and dull, or make minor changes -- that not even David Frost probably noticed -- to make the movie more interesting?

As for JFK, it's not like Stone made up the conspiracy theory. His problem was simply that he pretended that the film was a documentary telling the truth about the assassination when he knew it was fiction. It was a great marketing ploy, but had nothing to do with the truth of the matter.

But some of the changes do distort what happened. Consider an example from this article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-drew/ifrostnixoni-a-dishonorab_b_150948.html):

Frost did not in fact "nail" Nixon. The climactic moment of the movie (as in the play) has Nixon confessing to having participated in the cover-up of the famous break-in of the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, in June, 1972 by operatives hired by White House aides. But this "confession" is produced through a blatant distortion of what Nixon actually said in the interviews. At that particular moment, Frost was pressing Nixon to admit that he had more than made "mistakes," that there had in fact been wrongdoing, that crime might have been involved (a rather mild way of putting it). Then, through a sleight of hand, the script simply changes what Nixon actually said: the script of the play has Nixon admitting that he "...was involved in a 'cover-up,' as you call it." The ellipsis is of course unknown to the audience, and is crucial: What Nixon actually said was, "You're wanting to me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!"

The movie has Nixon admitting guilt; the reality did not. I don't necessarily care if a movie writer juggles sequences and outright fabricates things we don't have on record, but if the reality was that no confession was produced and the film changes that, I consider this a serious issue. We're not talking about cutting out a few coughs and stumbles, we're talking about revising the verifiable history in this case.

Cat Whisperer
01-05-2009, 03:44 PM
Hell, we're not even allowed to fiddle with quotes from other posters on this board, but Ron Howard should be allowed to do so with a former President of the United States of America, to change a denial of wrongdoing into a confession? My first reaction is no way, man! That's just wrong!

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