Sunday, March 31, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
As the title implies, Frost/Nixon (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) suggests a prize fight between two boxers. However, the movie deals with a verbal battle. The film tells the story surrounding televised interviews between two seemingly very different opponents who, nevertheless, are alike in having difficulty dealing with the reality of their situations. This Ron Howard directed film resonates with today’s political climate because it deals with the issue of whether a U. S. President is above the law by nature of his office.
The movie starts by playing back some of the White House tapes that implicated President Richard M. Nixon in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in of the Democratic Party campaign office. The words heard show Nixon to be vindictive, talking about wanting to kick out someone’s teeth, and calling what he considered his enemies “sons of bitches.” The tapes note him “Wanting to hang that Kennedy clan.” There is footage of the Watergate news coverage which shows people attached to Nixon’s campaign being found guilty of crimes. Nixon also had an enemies hit list of journalists who he saw as being against him and who he planned to target politically. Testimony indicated that there was wiretapping of news people. In front of Congress a lawyer states, “The misuse of power is the very essence of tyranny.” Even though the White House refused to turn over the recordings that showed Nixon’s involvement, the Supreme Court, in a nonpartisan, unanimous decision concluded that President Nixon had to supply the evidence. The judicial decision was symbolic in showing that the country should be united when there is a threat to its democracy. Impeachment was imminent.
The film then transitions from actual news coverage to its take on the events by inserting Frank Langella (recreating his stage performance, and getting a Best Actor Oscar nomination) as Nixon. He is first seen informing the nation that he is resigning the presidency in 1974. An angry and disappointed Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s Chief of Staff, stands by as Nixon addresses the country. There are quick comments supplied in interviews throughout the movie, which give the film a documentary feel, provide information, and which reveal the characters’ personalities. These interviews mirror the main event exchanges between Frost and Nixon, and initiate dramatizations of events. Those who worked with Frost are Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), who was Bureau Chief of ABC News, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), a political writer, and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), a program director for London Weekend Television. Reston says there was no satisfaction from the resignation, only anger because Nixon gave no apology when leaving office. Zelnick says, in retrospect, that it seemed unlikely that Frost would be the one to actually get that satisfaction of exposing Nixon’s thought processes, since Frost had no political convictions, and probably never voted. (Frost did host the excellent TV show “That Was the Week That Was,” which was a biting political satire). But, Zelnick says, Frost had the advantage of understanding television, which means Frost knew the power of its impact. Just as in Howard’s Apollo 13, we know the ending beforehand, but Howard is able to sustain interest through his dramatization of the incremental parts of the story leading up to its conclusion.
The first view of Frost (Michael Sheen) shows him to be a superficial celebrity. He is on TV in Australia, talking about the theft of some sausages, and making a silly joke about the felons escaping in a “long, thin getaway car.” This frivolous broadcast is followed by Brennan, at a later time, being condescending toward Frost, saying that the Nixon camp knew little of him, other than he had a reputation as a playboy. He concedes that the man had a talk show in the U.S., and “had won some awards.” Brennan then says dismissively that Frost’s show was dropped and he relocated to Australia. In fact, Frost had done some in-depth, ninety-minute episodes that showed he knew how to interview celebrities. But the film, and the play on which it was based, wanted to show, as movie producer Brian Grazer said, a David versus Goliath story.
Frost observes Nixon on television as he leaves the White House after his resignation, smiling and flashing his double victory sign with his hands (which was out of touch with the era since the youth had adapted the gesture to mean “peace”). Frost sees that there is a moment which reveals an angry scowl on Nixon’s face after the smiling as he went into the helicopter, which suggests the other side of the man. Frost, showing his insight into the power of mass media, notes the resignation speech was broadcast at a time that was too early for those to witness it on the West Coast of America. His comment implies that Nixon missed an opportunity to reach more people and make more of an impact with his exit. Frost, assessing the magnitude of Nixon’s leaving the White House, asks for viewing numbers concerning the broadcast, as he is curious as to how well it played as a TV programming event.
Brennan recounts that he observed Nixon’s face as the man flew away while a “liberal America cheered, gloated. Hippies, draft dodgers, dilettantes, the same people who’d spit on me when I got back from Vietnam.” Brennan provides an insight into how many soldiers, caught up in the very unpopular and pointless war in Vietnam, were unjustly blamed for the government’s tragic military mistakes. But, his experiences, and those of Nixon’s, who had a paranoid personality, limited their ability to see that the war was denounced by an overwhelming majority of the nation, not just those lumped under what Brennan considered derogatory labels.
Frost approaches TV programmer Birt after contacting Nixon’s people about a retrospective style interview with Nixon. Birt pushes for getting a confession out of the former president, and Frost acts like he will get that, too, but he seems to just say that so he can get a network to sign up for the gig. Meanwhile, President Gerald Ford grants Nixon, who was not even subjected to a trial, “a full, free and absolute pardon … for all offenses against the United States.” Ford felt the negativity of the impact of legally punishing Nixon outweighed holding him accountable for his actions, and decided that he would nip any prosecution in the bud. The polls said they disapproved of the pardon by a two to one margin, but somehow nobody challenged whether President Ford was able to issue a pardon without a person being first tried and convicted.
Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones), Nixon’s literary agent, visits the ex-president, who is working on a book. Nixon had a phlebitis attack and is in a wheelchair, saying that the “unhappiest people of the world are retired.” He said in his resignation speech that leaving office went against everything in his nature, showing he was not a quitter, and he still has no desire to be on the political sidelines. He says one needs a challenge or purpose in life. He states he wanted to testify in a Watergate trial, but his health prevented it. In Nixon’s mind, being so self-righteous, he didn’t see that he did anything wrong. He wants to do the book to set the record straight, but he is obviously very pleased that Lazar convinced the publishers to advance 2.3 million dollars. Nixon was not one of the very rich politicians and money was important to him. Frost had already proposed doing the interviews, which were originally rejected by Nixon. Lazar tells him that he wouldn’t get grilled by Frost the way Mike Wallace of CBS might go after him. Lazar adds enticement by saying there might be more cash and better ground rules with Frost, which now draws interest from Nixon.
Frost was doing a pure entertainment program about escape artists, along with other shows. This information implies that for Frost, doing a show about Nixon isn’t that much different, since the former chief executive escaped prosecution. Lazar tells Nixon he was offered an unprecedented half a million dollars for the interviews. The agent assures Nixon that Frost will be so grateful for landing Nixon, “he’ll pitch puffballs all night.” Nixon, seeing how much he can cash in on his own infamy, asks for another fifty grand, and Lazar actually is able to up it another hundred thousand dollars. Nixon is shown as being unashamedly mercenary, because he felt that if he couldn’t get the respect of others, he would at least get their money.
Birt tells Frost that making Nixon richer when the American people are angry with the former chief executive is not going to make Frost popular. And, the competing networks will call it “checkbook journalism,” which they probably see as setting a bad precedent that would inhibit the free flow of information by having to pay for it. Frost is already doing well financially, but he is like Nixon, by being ambitious and wanting to increase his sphere of influence. Frost admits to Birt that he experienced what success is like in America, and describes it like a very intoxicating high. He says once it is gone, there is “the sickening thought that it may never come back.” He is confessing to being a fame junkie.
Frost meets a beautiful woman named Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) on the plane to California to meet Nixon. He immediately begins to flirt with her. She recognizes him, says she heard an interview he gave on the phone from his Rolls Royce (this era is way before cell phones, so it was a big deal to have a car phone). He corrects her by saying he was in his Bentley, making sure she precisely identifies his level of wealth. She says that the perception of Frost as expressed by the radio newsman was that he “defined the age we live in,” along with hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. So, the implication is that Frost reflected a world that was only interested in superficiality, such as the appearance of a hairstyle. Caroline reports that the conclusion of the program was that Frost achieved fame “without possessing any discernible quality.” The point of the movie is that possibly all of this lack of respect for what he accomplished may have pushed Frost to be more aggressive in his interview with Nixon. She says there was another statement that he flies around a lot, which he concedes is true. He says he likes to keep busy because it is “more interesting than keeping still.” This statement shows how he is like Nixon, who said retired people were unhappy. Frost divulges that he is going to meet Nixon, possibly to impress her with the fact that he is doing something important. To show that he would like to win her over, he offers to have her come along and meet the ex-president.
Caroline says in an interview that Frost made everything seem fine on the outside, but he was not getting any offers from the networks. Their executives said they didn’t pay for interviews, thought that Frost was a good entertainer, but they didn’t have a policy of paying an entertainer to do a news story. Caroline says that Frost was not one who could accept failure. Frost and Caroline visit Nixon. The former president immediately and slyly uses Caroline to do a tour of his home which includes items which show memorable historic events, like meeting the Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev. He is trying to awe the visitors by telling interesting anecdotes to show his intimacy with world leaders and divert them by telling amusing stories. Nixon says, “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they’re being taped.” If he is trying to be funny, he doesn’t show it and it may indicate that he is incapable of facing his own situation. His ironic statement also defeats his trying to make a distinction between a tyrannical Russia and a democratic United States. While Frost is a delighted visitor, he exchanges glances with Brennan who is not smiling, and Frost can see that the Nixon aid sees Frost as a threat.
On the way out, Nixon says he was never invited to a duel, and Frost wants to reassure him that his interview will not be that adversarial. Instead of accepting that concession, Nixon is provocative by saying that it will be confrontational and there should be “no holds barred.” He says he likes it that way. He enjoys the battle, but he probably feels that Frost is too easy an opponent. Nixon wants his victory to be earned, so he tries to prod Frost into being more combative. Lazar makes sure that his client gets his upfront money of $200,000. He starts to tell Frost to make it out to him, as the go-between, but Nixon interrupts and says make it out to himself instead, eager to get the cash. Nixon says he hopes that the money isn’t coming out of Frost’s own funds, and Frost is not forthcoming by saying he doesn’t have deep pockets. Nixon reveals his cold, calculating personality when he says that Frost should marry Caroline, not because, as Frost says, she is “lovely,” but because she lives in Monaco where there are no taxes.
Afterwards, Nixon, who noted that Frost used a personal check, correctly says to Brennan he bets that Frost used his own money to pay him. Brennan is aware of the networks balking at airing the program. Nixon is condescendingly funny saying if he knew Frost was taking a two hundred grand hit he would have offered the Britisher some tea. The joke about offering only the beverage shows Nixon would not have felt any sympathy for Frost, since he would have enjoyed ripping him off. Nixon comments on Frost’s expensive, laceless Italian shoes, saying his staff couldn’t get those for him. Brennan is there to always bolster his boss, and says the shoes are effeminate. Nixon agrees with Brennan, since his aid’s comment justifies Nixon being deprived of the extravagant footwear. In the movie, Nixon is always keeping score, wanting to rack up more points than anyone else.
After all the major television networks give Frost a final thumbs down, he decides to pay for the show and syndicate it. It’s 1976 and he meets for the first time with Reston and Zelnick. Reston, who wrote a book on Nixon’s abuse of power, is not satisfied with Frost’s idea of success being just landing Nixon for a TV program. He will be giving up possibly a whole year on the project, and he wants to give Nixon the trial that he never had. Frost says that there will be tough questions, but wonders whether being too aggressive would just generate sympathy for the man. Frost at this point is only concerned with scoring TV ratings points, not doing a historical takedown. Reston doesn’t see how anyone can feel sadness for Nixon since he sent many soldiers to die, “devalued” the presidency, and left the country “in trauma.” He says that if Frost’s show allows Nixon to exonerate himself, “that would be the worst crime of all.” Reston says many consider Frost’s project a joke, which again stresses the general impression that Frost is fighting out of his journalistic weight class.
Birt admits that Mike Wallace is doing a TV segment that Frost assumes will be about how inadequate he is to take on Nixon. Frost acknowledges that he is feeling a bit insulted by Wallace doing such a critical piece on him. Even though Birt advises getting rid of Reston, to his credit, Frost says he likes the man’s passion and realizes that it might benefit Frost to be pushed out of his comfort zone. Nixon and now Reston want Frost to up his game, and Frost is starting to value the project more seriously.
Nixon is upset that he has to be a speaker at events telling “banal anecdotes” which are supposed to be humorous, but are really boring, about his time in office. The Q&A that followed one such outing included some inquiries about Watergate, which Nixon thought he prohibited. Nixon is upset that Watergate eclipses everything else he did. Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge the enormous impact that results from a criminal act and a breach of the whole country’s confidence committed by the President. Brennan, trying to help his boss be more positive, informs him that Frost acquired the money to do the show. Nixon sees it as his chance to vindicate himself since only 25% of the show is to be dedicated to the issue of the Watergate incident. Nixon comes off admirably in not wanting pity for his early difficult life which involved the death of his two brothers and a neglectful father. Brennan says if Nixon can rebuild his reputation he will be able to move back east, which is where Nixon wants to go because that is where “the action” is. He admits that he still has the “hunger” to be an actor on the public stage. He is in denial about how much he has damaged the democracy, and unfortunately, he has Brennan, although a loyal supporter, just enabling Nixon’s desire not to take responsibility for his negative actions. He says he wants to know more about Frost’s strategy and suggests maybe he should get in touch with some Cubans who were trained by the CIA to get the information. Brennan looks worried, and Nixon scoffs at him, saying it was just a joke, and it is a good one, although on the dark side.
In January, 1977 Frost’s team moves into the Beverly Hills Hilton and starts to do research. Frost seems unaware of the roles of former top White House officials John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman. His staff did most of the work and they didn’t see much of Frost, which shows he, also, is still not accepting the historical importance of the interview. The team wants to hammer at Nixon’s giving a stamp of approval to dirty tricks, including illegal wiretapping of individuals and opening their mail, breaking and entering, slush funds, etc. Reston questions the overreaching power of the presidency by wanting to ask the question, “How far do you take executive privilege before it becomes an undemocratic event?” Zelnick is pretty funny playing Nixon in the mock interview rehearsals, actually making good points about the power of a person who knows how to work the mass media. Zelnick, in his parody impersonation of the ex-president, shows insight into Nixon’s personality by saying how he would say that John Kennedy was handsome and had a charming personality, but was promiscuous, and that the Kennedy family participated in shady election practices. Yet, he says, the public loved Kennedy, but not sweaty Nixon. This comment points to how television makes how one looks and sounds more important than what one stands for.
Frost downplays Reston’s request to do further research in Washington, D. C., saying that they will accomplish their goals without it. Brennan calls Frost and says that anything negative about Nixon must only be covered in the 25% segment dedicated to Watergate. Frost finally plays hardball, and says that was not part of the agreement, and threatens a twenty-million-dollar lawsuit. He says that Nixon doesn’t get to “drone” on for 75% of the program about how “presidential” he was. Brennan is outraged by the lack of respect from Frost, and says that 60% of the time Nixon did what was right, and 30% he may have been wrong but thought he was right. Frost rightly counters that 10% of the time Nixon knew what he was doing was wrong and did it anyway. Brennan ends with a general disgust for the media and says he will make Frost pay for an attack against Nixon. His attitude is in tune with what caused Nixon trouble in his career, that is, not abiding any criticism and designating anyone who criticized him as a person to be targeted as an enemy.
Frost does not share how he stood up to Brennan with the others who still question his ability to take on Nixon. He probably didn’t want them to feel the pressure exerted by Brennan on their enterprise. He goes off with Caroline to a movie premiere of a film he produced the night before the start of the Nixon interviews. Birt tries to reassure Reston and Zelnick, but actually produces the opposite effect, by saying that Frost is a top-notch performer and will do a terrific job. After Birt leaves, the other two are upset by the word “performer” as opposed to “interviewer” or “journalist,” which shows how they want the program to be a news event as opposed to a diverting ratings blockbuster.
In contrast to the glitzy escapism exhibited at Frost’s movie premier, Nixon is working diligently with his team preparing for the next day’s interview. They do look at the TV as Frost steps out in front of the theater. Someone asks Frost if he is the right person to deal with Nixon’s resistance to probing questions. Frost says that he expects a “cascade of candor.” The reporter asks if Frost really expects that, and Frost says no, but he shows his understanding of the media by saying he used the phrase because the press would find it catchy. Nixon ponders what kind of fellow Frost is, and one person says he almost married the singer Diahann Carroll. When Nixon remembers she is African American, he utters a snort of disgust, revealing, at least in this film, a bigoted attitude.
It is March 23, 1977, the first interview day. Both men receive good luck kisses before the battle from their respective significant others, but Pat Nixon (Patty McCormack), has a look of concern for her already beleaguered husband. Frost wants to grab the audience’s attention by starting out by asking why Nixon did not burn the tapes. Zelnick says that it’s too risky because it would violate the agreement to relegate the talk of Watergate to the last interview. Also, Nixon could walk, and then sue. Reston says he did four books on Nixon, but never met the man. This fact may help with objectivity, but it also possibly prevented him from really getting a firsthand look at what kind of man Nixon is. Zelnick asks if Reston will shake Nixon’s hand when introduced, and he says of course not. But, when offered a handshake, the laws of manners, and the fact that Nixon was the President, compel Reston to shake his hand, and address him as “Mr. President,” Zelnick quickly makes fun of Reston’s inability to stand up to the man in person as opposed to his challenges at a safe distance in print.
Before the first session, Frost is cordial, saying how pleased he was that Mrs. Nixon’s health was improving. Nixon on the other hand shows his lack of social finesse by asking how much it cost to get the program produced, and wonders if it was all paid for. Frost says not all of it, since some were deferring their fees. But Nixon, showing how he believes he has the upper hand, says he knows of one who was not, meaning he wasn’t giving Frost an extension on getting paid. Nixon wants to make sure he will keep a handkerchief where it will not be seen to wipe his lip between questions, since his infamous wet upper lip in the TV debate with Kennedy cost him the presidency according to some. He is accurate in saying that those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won the verbal contest, which shows how powerful visual appearance is in the media. Nixon shows he understands that TV images create “their own meaning,” which can alter reality as compared to how average people perceive it. In a sense, Nixon is seeing that same contest with Kennedy playing out again, as he must confront a television personality who knows how to play to the camera. Nixon points out that Frost was “born to be on the tube” since he does not have to trim his eyebrows, has nice skin, and doesn't perspire. Nixon shows his lack of tact by commenting directly to Frost about those Italian laceless shoes, asking if he thinks they are effeminate, and condescendingly says that in his field, Frost can get away with wearing them, and thus appearing unmanly.
Frost does open with the question about burning the tapes, but instead of storming off, Nixon calmly comments that the question should have been left for the last interview, but since Frost said that it is what the audience wants to know, Nixon says he will address it. He does so by dissipating the question’s impact by going on about how the taping system was implemented by Johnson, and Nixon wanted it dismantled but it would have been a big project. It was meant to accurately keep a record of all presidential discussions. He says once it was known that the tapes existed they became public knowledge and they couldn’t be tampered with. In an interview, Brennan makes the overt comparison to a boxing match where Frost, being the challenger, felt “the impact from the champ’s first jab,” and realized after the first exchange that his preparation did not anticipate the ability of his opponent.
After Nixon evenly, without being rattled, lessens the impact of the question, Frost’s team wants to regroup and stops recording. In a continuation of Brennan’s boxing metaphor, Frost and Nixon appear to retire to get advice from, as director Howard put it, their “corner men.” Birt tells Frost to ask the former president about the lowest point of his presidency, the night before he resigned. Brennan provides encouragement to Nixon by telling him that the former president came off “statesmanlike,” and encourages him to “control the space,” which sounds like what a fighter might do. After taping resumes, Nixon downplays rumors about the night in question by referring to other emotional events in his life and past decisions with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He also minimizes reports of him forcing a prayer session with Kissinger by saying it was a simple request that the two men share a brief, silent moment praying together. They run out of time as Nixon wins round one by limiting the number of questions with his extended replies.
Frost runs out after the session to try to get sponsorship from an outfit that manufactures a weed destroying product, and later even seems to be losing that company as a backer. Frost then makes desperate calls to acquire financial support. Birt tells Zelnick and Reston that they do have a dog food company as a sponsor, but admits that the “blue chip” investors dropped out because of what Reston assumes is the lack of faith in the “credibility of the project.” So they have raised only 30% of the funding, and Frost is paying for most of the enterprise. Birt urges the other two men to go easy on Frost because he has more than his reputation at stake. Zelnick makes the point that so do they, implying that he and Reston have invested a great deal of time and put their careers on the line to participate in what should be an important political moment.
Birt, sounding like a fight manager, tells Frost to keep his distance and don’t be so social with Nixon before the interviews, which allows the ex-president to manipulate Frost. He tells Frost to stop Nixon from giving long, “self-serving” responses by jumping in with more questions, sort of like how a boxer uses quick jabs to interrupt his opponent’s rhythm. In the next meeting, Nixon seems to be distracted by the beautiful Caroline, and Brennan tells his fighter to focus. Frost limits the talk before the taping, but Nixon tries to rattle him, and also reveals his preoccupation with Caroline, by crudely asking if Frost, on the prior night, did any “fornicating.”
Frost questions Nixon about betraying his promise to put an end to the Vietnam War. Nixon says he inherited a bad situation, and could have won a Nobel Peace Prize by immediately pulling troops out. But, he believed in the cause upon which the war was based and felt it was important to show that America could see it through. He makes himself sound noble by saying that following a “harder path” results from pursuing what one believes in. Of course by shifting the conversation, he doesn’t answer the question about not keeping the promise he made in his campaign. Nixon says he was probably the last victim of the war, outrageously equating his problems with, as Reston says off-camera, with the “paraplegics.”
Frost follows up with questioning the extension of the war into Cambodia despite the CIA and the Pentagon advising against it. Nixon counters by noting the large number of weapons they seized by going into Cambodia that would have been used against American troops. Frost is now on the offensive by interrupting Nixon, saying that the headquarters for the South Vietnamese Communists was not in Cambodia as claimed. He argues that Nixon bombed innocent people in that country, turning them against America, and facilitating the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal regimes in history (as depicted in the movie The Killing Fields). They run a tape of the horror that resulted in Cambodia. Nixon says it was never the intention of the United States to harm civilians, which is the apologetic cliché of all leaders, and which has no connection to the reality of war. But, Nixon effectively counterpunches with an anecdote about a man who told him that he wished Nixon had gone into Cambodia earlier because he might have acquired the rifle that killed his boy. Nixon forcefully says he has no regrets about the attacks in Cambodia, and, with a louder voice, declares that he wished he would have gone in “earlier, and harder.”
While Nixon seems confident, smiling as he exits the interview, Frost’s satisfied feeling is deflated by his team’s defeated attitude. They feel Nixon came off well on the topic of the very unpopular Vietnam War, where he should have appeared very vulnerable. They do not look positively to the session about Russia and China, where Nixon was considered to have made major accomplishments. Zelnick is angry that Nixon stated that force was needed against revolutionaries in America. Zelnick essentially says that Nixon mislabeled those that were against the Vietnam War, who were mostly peaceful protestors objecting to the country’s war policies, and were not trying to topple the government. Reston says Nixon was making it look as if wiretapping journalists was a necessary step given the circumstances. Reston objects to what he calls Frost’s “trivia” questions, which are the kind a “talk show” host would pose. Frost, the man who does not handle failure well, tries to eliminate pessimism by giving them an ultimatum. He says that depressing and negative comments will infect the operation, and says anyone who doesn’t believe in the success of the project should leave. He invites them to celebrate with him and Caroline at a dinner, but Zelnick sees no reason for such a celebration. Frost informs them that it is his birthday, and despite the attacks on his handling of the interviews, he nobly says, “I’d like to celebrate my birthday with a few friends.” His conciliatory personality sets him apart from Nixon, who seeks vengeance against those who question him, a dangerous attitude in someone who wields immense power.
Another bit of contrasting scenes follow that delineate differences and similarities between Nixon and Frost. Frost’s lavish party has celebrities such as Neil Diamond, Hugh Hefner, and others, where even Reston and Zelnick are starstruck. Frost is brooding a bit despite Birt saying the tapes will be around for future historians and Caroline telling him nobody else could have pulled off making the interviews happen. Frost is probably reflecting how he worries the program will not be broadcast because of a lack of backing, and he likely is feeling defeated despite his outward optimism. Nixon’s venue is much quieter as he plays subdued, music on the piano with a small group of family and loyal friends, reflecting his outsider disposition. Brennan, again making a sports analogy, tells Pat Nixon that her husband is working on a shutout game, and she says she is glad all is going “according to plan.” But Nixon’s face reveals some concern, that maybe he does not feel as triumphant as others around him think he should feel, since the final installment deals with Watergate.
After the party, Frost gets news that his Australian show has been canceled and his one in England may follow. He has invested so much of his energy and resources into the Nixon interviews that the entertainment part of his work, for which he was known and allowed him to prosper, is failing. He reveals to Caroline grave self-doubts about what he has risked, and sees his choice to pursue the Nixon show as a huge mistake.
But right at that moment, he receives a call from an inebriated Nixon (which did not really occur, but works here for dramatic purposes). The former president, probably feeling envious of Frost’s younger age and celebrity bachelor lifestyle, wonders if Frost is entertaining anyone, which is code for having a woman with him. But Frost admits, at the moment, that he, too, is alone. He says that he is getting ready for their final session, which is not true, but perhaps even in his despair, Frost is trying to make a show of strength. Nixon rightly concludes that how Frost handles the issue of Watergate will determine the success or failure of Frost’s enterprise. Nixon wonders if he should be worried. Frost says he will give it his best shot, and to Nixon’s credit, a man who is a veteran of many public battles says, “Quite right. No holds barred.” They are like two verbal gladiators preparing to square off against each other. Nixon just now has read over a research profile on Frost, which shows that he didn’t originally consider him to be much of an adversary. He notes that Frost came from a “modest” background and went off “to a grand university full of richer, posher types.” Nixon always had an inferiority complex when it came to those who were wealthier, who felt they were part of a cultured upper class. It is on this point that he feels he and Frost are similar, and offers that he knows that there must have been snobs who treated Frost badly at college. Nixon says, “No matter how high we get, they still look down at us.” Frost says he doesn’t know what Nixon is talking about, but he was certainly experiencing that condescension from Reston and Zelnick recently. Nixon says that rejection is “why we work so hard now, why we fight for every inch.” Nixon says that both their struggles are “undignified” because they must scratch and claw to climb up out of the shadows into “a way back into the sun,” which was automatically assigned to the privileged. And the fact that they have no safety net, there is always the danger that they can slip back into the “dirt” which is where the snobs felt they should reside. Nixon fiercely promises that they will continue to fight, win awards, and gain power to defy those who would relegate them to defeat. But Frost says that only one of them can win their battle. Nixon, seeing this interview as his last stand, says that is correct. He promises to be Frost’s worst adversary, because given the circumstances, one of them must be defeated because “the limelight can only shine on one of us.” Nixon grasps the way games of competition must play out. He says with great insight that the loser will be sent to “the wilderness, with nothing and no one for company.”
With the gauntlet being thrown down, Frost now does work on the last confrontation, listening to the Watergate tapes and going over the research. He gets Reston to follow up on the latter’s idea of researching a meeting between Nixon and Charles Colson, his special counselor when he was President. There is a cut to Nixon on a treadmill, looking like an athlete working out to get in shape for a contest. Nixon marches into the session with no cordial greetings. Frost mentions the phone call, but Nixon doesn’t even remember it, which is difficult to believe since how could he be that drunk and still speak so logically during the conversation.
Frost starts out by asking Nixon if he felt he participated in obstruction of justice. Nixon condescendingly says Frost probably hasn’t read the statute on this point, but Frost counters by saying he has, which makes Nixon hesitate for a moment. This exchange of blows is the opposite of what Brennan noted after the first interview, when it was Frost who seemed unprepared. Nixon says that the law states obstruction not only requires an act but it must be coupled with a “specific corrupt motive.” He says that he was only interested in political containment. Frost points out that Nixon tried to stop the investigation, giving the go-ahead for further criminal inquiries when the fallout from the burglary couldn’t be contained. Frost says that obstruction doesn’t have a time period limitation; it’s obstruction even if it’s for a short period. Nixon says there is no evidence that there was an attempt during the period in question to obstruct justice. Frost notes that eighteen minutes of taping were erased, and Nixon says there remained Bob Haldeman’s notes. Frost then reveals what Reston discovered, that there is an unpublished transcript that was in the archives of a conversation between Nixon and Colson. Nixon seems taken aback by this revelation, as if Frost hit him with an unexpected punch. The conversation with Colson shows Nixon knew about the crime three days earlier than he claimed. Frost then quotes later transcripts that talk about dealing with the consequences of the break-in with exorbitant amounts of money. Frost here confronts Nixon directly for the first time with the evidence that caused impeachment hearings to be considered. Nixon says that he thought the money was going for the humanitarian defense of unfortunate people, who turned out to be the burglars. Nixon maintains that Ehrlichman and Haldeman were the culprits, but Frost said why not alert the authorities once he knew about their crimes, and by not doing so, that was part of a cover-up. Nixon says he knew these men and their families and erred on the part of compassion for them. Nixon says that sometimes in his position he had to do things that were not strictly legal because they were “in the greater interests of the nation.” Frost asks if he is saying that the President can do something illegal when he thinks it’s what best? That question is the knockout punch because Nixon then says, “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Nixon’s staff reacts with shared pain at this self-incriminating remark. Frost then tries to put the nail in the coffin by asking for Nixon to admit that he was part of a cover-up and did break the law. Nixon seems flustered and unable to respond.
Brennan stops the interview and Zelnick and Reston angrily tell him that he can be sued for preventing the interview from continuing. Frost also seems frustrated that he couldn’t get the answer to his question. In another room, Nixon asks Brennan if he “threw in the towel,” (another boxing metaphor), and felt pity for him, which Nixon does not seek. Brennan says that maybe the former president should take a beat before making an “emotional disclosure” that could have devastating consequences. Nixon now looks defeated, admits to being worn down by all of his denials, but thanks Brennan for his efforts. He is basically saying that he wants to continue with the interview.
Frost resumes by saying that the people want to know if there were more than mistakes made, that there was wrongdoing, that Nixon abused the power of the presidency, and he put the American people through two years of unnecessary agony. Frost says that Nixon must apologize because the people need to hear it and if he doesn’t, Watergate will continue to “haunt” him. Nixon admits he made “horrendous” mistakes, unworthy of his office, but still doesn’t call them illegal acts. He does admit to the cover-up, but refuses to “grovel.” He seems tortured trying to come up with what to say to the American people. He finally says that he let the American people down and “our system of government.” He finally concedes that his political life is over. So, he finally seems to understand that his plans noted at the beginning of the movie of moving back east and being involved in the political scene again will not happen, and probably never had a chance. He sits in the chair, looking thoroughly vanquished.
Reston says that Zelnick and Birt celebrated that Frost accomplished what no judiciary committee, no prosecutor, and no journalist had accomplished in getting Nixon to admit his role, and apologize. But, he notes that TV tends to oversimplify “complex” issues, reducing them to a single snapshot. He says the image of Nixon on the TV screen showed his face to be “swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.” That one image would blot out everything else, all of the shades of gray between the blacks and whites of what is purely wrong and right, the complexities that this movie is trying to depict.
The program was a huge ratings success. Frost was on the cover of major magazines and received accolades for the interviews. Frost did visit Nixon before going home with Caroline. Nixon seems to take it all in his pre-admission of guilt stride again, and congratulates Frost for being a “worthy” opponent. He treats the interviews like they were just a contest, lightly dismissing any journalistic fallout perpetrated by those “sons of whores.” Frost did bring him a pair of Italian shoes, showing some class. Nixon says he admires Frost for being able to be such a people person, which he is not, and finds it ironic that he chose a profession that relied on having people like him. He was more adapted to a life of “debate” and “intellectual discipline.” Interestingly, Nixon says they maybe should have switched jobs, which reflects on the current state of how celebrity brings success in politics. Nixon asks if they really did talk on the phone, but Frost says they only talked about cheeseburgers, (since Frost thought Caroline was calling to ask what he wanted to eat). Frost spares Nixon the embarrassment of knowing he revealed his mental anguish.
The postscript says that Frost (the David in the tale) was welcomed back into broadcasting while Nixon (the Goliath) remained pretty much out of the public picture until his death. Reston comments again about that media oversimplification process by noting the former president’s political epitaph. He says that “His most lasting legacy is that today any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix - gate.”
Next time, movies studied at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The story of Paper Moon, a 1973 film, takes place during the Great Depression, around 1935. Associate Producer Frank Marshall said the movie is funny without being slapstick, and touching without being sentimental. So, it achieves its goals without resorting to easy manipulation. It is shot in black and white which gives it a newsreel authenticity, which is fitting for the time period. There is no attempt to pretty up the look of the film because the era is one of gritty reality. Also, nothing was shot out of focus, which adds to its real feel, so that it does not overly call attention to itself as a movie. Polly Platt, the film’s production designer, and director Peter Bogdanovich’s ex-wife, said they moved the location of the story in the novel from the southern United States to Kansas because the landscapes of that state are “lonely and evocative,” with “weathered barns and houses in the middle of nowhere.” She also said that people there drive old cars, so they used automobiles in the movie that were from 1925. The setting mirrors the desolate nature that resulted from the devastating economic impact of the times. Director Bogdanovich went through songs of the era and came up with “Paper Moon,” feeling it would make a good title. The whimsical lyrics add meaning to the movie because they say that everything is a sham unless there is a belief in someone and love between two people that makes life real.
The story starts with Addie (Tatum O'Neal, winning Best Supporting Actress, the youngest ever to win an Academy Award), age nine, looking stern at her mother’s burial. There is a preacher quoting scripture. The words talk about not going with “dissemblers,” and washing oneself “in innocency,” which is the opposite of what happens to Addie as she does what she believes she needs to do to get by. Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a con man, with a very obvious fake name to draw in the religiously devout, visits the grave site. He says he knew the mother, obviously in a carnal way since he throws flowers in the grave and says he knows the mother’s “ass is still warm.” A woman at the grave site says they are looking for the child's family relations and that Moses has a jawline just like Addie’s, suggesting that he may be her father. (The inside joke here is that they are father and daughter in real life). Since he is going to Missouri, the women and the preacher say Addie’s aunt lives there and he can drop her off. He does not want this burden, but must capitulate, or else his cover as a devout religious person would be undermined. So, it appears that his own con works against him here. Addie looks at him with a scowl, seeing through his facade.
There has been so much poverty that people are reduced to running a confidence games, (or robbing banks, as in Bonnie and Clyde). That Moses sells bibles is an ironic but practical way of getting somebody’s money. The film explores the need to make a connection between a parent and a child, but the roles are somewhat reversed, since the child, here, has been forced to grow up fast, and may be more devious than the father figure. Addie asks with a squinty, suspicious look and an interrogative voice why Moses is taking her. He says because he’s going that way. But, he won’t let this unanticipated errand stop him from running scams. They make a stop at a business establishment and Moses uses Addie to extort money. He tells the boss there that her name is Addie Loggins. He knows that the man’s brother caused the death of Addie’s mom because he was drunk and driving. Threatening a lawsuit by a lawyer who cares more for the poor than the rich, Moses gets $200 from the man. This scene can remind one of the major theme of The Great Gatsby, where a careless well-to-do person kills a poor woman, and is not held responsible for the action. Here, Moses is making a rich person pay for the crime, but for his own selfish purposes, not out of justice, since the society teaches that all persons must look out for themselves.
With the money, Moses gets a newer car and buys Addie a train ticket with $20 for her aunt. So, he lied about taking her all the way to Missouri. His friendly appearance is deceiving, which is necessary for a someone in the confidence racket. While they get something to eat and drink until the train arrives, he keeps saying what he thinks he should tell a child by urging her to eat her “Coney Island” hot dog and drink her “Nehi” soda. He thinks she isn’t hungry because she is afraid of being on a train and says that all her troubles will be over once she reaches her aunt’s place. But Addie is nothing like a scared little girl. He says that her mother was a “fine woman,” and someone to be proud of, which isn’t really true, but he wants, in his mind, to keep Addie’s innocence intact. He says that the mother brought “happiness” to people, which could be a euphemism for sexual favors. But Addie frankly says she heard that her mother wasn't an upstanding woman. She isn’t buying the sweet, phony lines. She wants honesty. She says her aunt doesn’t know her, won’t want her, and didn’t care for her mother. She asks if Moses met her mother, “in a barroom.” Since that would lead to sex, she wonders if he is her father. He says just because he did, confirming her suspicion, doesn’t mean he is her dad. He shares that he has endured loss, too, both his parents being dead, and he doesn’t know where his sister is. So, he, too, is alone in the world, which can be an underlying reason for them to connect with each other. She would like to have a parent, but if he isn’t her father then she says Moses owes her the $200 that he acquired from the businessman because Addie lost her mother. She basically trapped him, since if he is lying to her about not being her father, he must pay for it. She plays the innocent child in distress role, faking a temper tantrum, and says she will tell the police what he did. The scene demonstrates that Addie also can play the con game, adding to the possibility of a genetic link. He tries to talk himself out of the fix he is in, arguing that she should be grateful to him since the people where she lived wouldn’t have done anything for her. So, he believes he is entitled to payment for helping her get to her aunt. She insists on getting paid, but he no longer has the money since he bought the car and sent $20 with the telegram. She says in a low, measured, threatening voice, “Then get it.” He slams the table in anger and frustration at what he thought would be an easy play. The waitress calls Addie “Precious,” and Moses says in a seething voice that is not her name. He now realizes he doesn’t have a sweet, innocent child on his hands. He goes to the train station to get his money back and sends a new telegram about how Addie will be delayed, which shows she has beaten him at his own game.
They drive to a house and Addie sees that Moses has circled a name in the obituary page to prey on, not “Pray” with, a widow. Moses’s first name implies he leads others to the promised land, but here he only wants to lead himself there, in a monetary sense. He lies to the woman, saying he didn’t know her husband was dead, and the deceased man ordered a bible for her. Addie sees that Moses has printing tools to stamp in the survivor’s name. He gets seven dollars out of the woman.
To add authenticity to the film, Addie listens to Jack Benny or Fibber McGee and Molly radio shows which make her laugh. The thrust here is that escapism through entertainment brought relief from the harshness of the economic times. She is in the bed in the hotel room and he must sleep on the floor. She carries a cigar box that looks like a place to put a kid’s stuff, but she pulls out a cigarette from it and lights up, showing how she is not a book to be guessed at by its cover. (Tatum O’Neal used cigarettes that were made from lettuce in her smoking scenes, which made her nauseous). Moses acts like the parent and tells her she is too young to smoke, but she just stares him down, and corrects him by one cent on how much he still owes her, showing she may be the one in charge here.
As they drive, Addie looks at very poor people pulling their few belongings along the side of the road. But, Moses is too wrapped up in his own schemes to worry about others. She wants him to be a good father figure, and says something positive about what President Roosevelt said, but he is not cheered up. She asks if he doesn’t like her, and he says, no, he doesn’t, seeing her as only a nuisance at this point. They go to another bereaved woman on the obituary list, but there is a sheriff there, too, who questions whether the dead husband could have talked to Moses since the deceased man wasn’t near his shop recently. The lawman also says he never heard of the Kansas Bible Company that Moses says he represents. Addie saves his skin by joining them and saying they will be late for church to pray for “Mama.” He being with a child and talking about going to church makes Moses appear legitimate, helping him to maintain the fraud. He is ready to leave and offers to return a dollar deposit. The law officer asks how much was the bible, and Addie, knowing she can exploit the situation now as the darling child, inflates the price to $12. Moses is surprised by the figure, and backs off it, but the sheriff has been hooked and pays the money. As they drive away, Addie seems pleased with herself, and Moses is smiling too, until she says how much he still owes her, as she pastes a contrasting sweet smile over the tough, down-to-business words she speaks.
Moses offers Addie a business proposition, realizing her childlike appearance can be used to sucker people in. She is originally suspicious, saying he’s trying to not pay what he owes her. He says he’ll pay her back, but they can also make some money together. He tells her that he sets the price, because he could have gotten them thrown in jail for jacking it up with the cop. As opposed to his emotional fears, she is cool and says evenly. “We got it, didn’t we?” He tells her she just has to be a pretty little girl, but she looks down, because she’s dressed in overalls. He asks if she has anything of her mother’s to wear. She says she has her mom’s kimono, and he embarrassingly says that is not what “I had in mind.” Her remark shows she has no problem making a reference to her mom’s promiscuous ways. But even though he is supposed to be the adult, he wants to avoid the embarrassing subject. In contrast to his uncomfortable response to the sexual topic, he nevertheless has no shame about using her in a criminal action by making her fake an innocent front to work their scams.
There is now a ribbon in Addie’s hair that is meant to depict her as a sweet child. But, just below the ribbon is a scowl on her face, the image saying underneath the cute surface is a tough presence. Moses buys more ribbons but scams the shopkeeper as he diverts her with innocent talk of her children and grandchildren while he keeps changing the denominations in the money exchange. After they leave, the transaction nags at the shopkeeper, not even knowing exactly what happened. She says to herself, “that just don’t seem right, somehow.” That may be our response as we may delight in the machinations of the con, but realize it is wrong legally and ethically.
Despite her natural ability to be a realist in the current economy and able to work a scam, Addie has a moral streak in her that doesn’t want to see the destitute taken advantage of, unlike Moses. They visit a woman who looks worn down, wearing second-hand clothing. There are seven young children in the doorway with her. Addie interrupts Moses’s pitch and says the bible was already paid for and hands it to the woman as Moses looks stunned. At the next house, he has Addie sitting away from the doorway next to the car so she won’t interfere. But, Addie with her keen observation skills, realizes that the woman has an affluent lifestyle. There is a piano in the background, along with a fancy chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and she is wearing expensive jewelry. Addie runs up, and flashing a disarming smile, says the bible is worth twenty-five dollars. The woman says that’s fine and will give her an extra five bucks just for coming to her door. In a strange way, Addie is advocating an egalitarian economic system where those that can afford it pay more for things without any hardship, and those that are suffering financially are not exploited. The woman asks what’s her name and she says Addie Pray. That is the role she is playing, but it also shows that she wants Moses to accept her as his daughter. As they drive away, Addie sings “Keep your sunny side up, up …” which goes along with the “Paper Moon” song about staying positive in tough times. She smiles at Moses, expecting some approval for her actions. He gives her a harsh look, not thrilled with having his adult control over the situation usurped.
They pass another indigent family along the way. Addie says she wants to give them some money since FDR said people have to look out for each other. She looks beyond the selfish capitalist drive in order to reach a higher level of generosity. Moses wants to bring the perspective down to individual selfishness. He says that FDR does okay for himself because he doesn’t want to look “common.” So, he basically is saying it’s easy for rich politicians to preach fairness, but they don’t practice it in their own lives. She argues that $200 dollars of their stash is hers and she has a say where it goes. He is angry, wants to pay her off, and drop her at the nearest train station. But when she looks at a map, he backtracks on what he said, and changes the subject by saying how far away they would have to travel. He then talks about towns they can pass through where they can do some business. She goes along with that, because they really don’t want to end their developing business and personal relationship.
She is in bed with the music on the radio providing escapist entertainment when Moses comes in after enjoying a night with a local woman. He comically shoves his folded pants between the spring and mattress to prevent wrinkling, not being domesticated to actually iron his clothes. Addie is really awake, and because of the date, she probably has thoughts of how he and her mother acted together. After he falls asleep, she takes her cigar box and goes into the bathroom. In another instance of how the surface does not reflect what is hidden beneath the facade, she takes out the money they have swindled and reveals a false bottom to the box. She has hidden personal items, including a picture of herself with her mother, who strikes a seductive pose, cementing Addie’s association with what just happened between Moses and his date. She then mimics her mother’s pose in the mirror, tries on her mom’s jewelry, and smiles, as she plays at how men expect women to behave. This activity seems inconsistent with her personality and age, and her splashing way too much perfume on herself demonstrates the disparity. When they are in the car the next day, Moses sniffs and smells the overpowering scent and then opens the front windshield to air out the inside of the car. Addie’s facial expression loses its smile as she feels disappointed that she hasn’t been able to carry off her attempt at being an attractive woman.
The saleswoman where they bought the ribbons (or should I say “stole”) had said that she thought Addie was a boy at first and now the barber cutting Moses’s hair says the same thing. Addie is angry at that perception, wanting to be as attractive as her mother who won over males. Moses says she is as beautiful as her mother, but might need some feminine clothes, which he adds would also be good for business. He seems to always bring things around to his making a buck. He then teaches her more scams.
Addie is now getting so good at conning people, she pulls the same scheme that Moses used at the first shop to get some cotton candy at a carnival (where the film again emphasizes the wish to escape into diversion from troubles). Moses has seen the “Harem” act there several times starring Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), a name that leaves nothing to the imagination. Addie is not happy about it, not wanting someone else to muscle in on her getting attention from Moses. Despite his preoccupation with Trixie, Moses says that he won’t leave Addie alone in this place because he has “scruples.” When he asks her if she knows what “scruples” are, Addie, delivering one of the film’s funniest lines, says she doesn’t know, “but if you got them, I sure bet they belong to somebody else.” Her remark shoots down his pretense to ethical behavior by pointing out how he hasn’t earned anything, not even the right to say he practices ethical behavior. She had wanted to take a picture with Moses sitting on that paper moon of the title in one of the booths, which would have shown how they were making a go of it despite the hard times. But instead she picks up a solo photo of herself. She is angry at Moses for not showing a desire to be with her, and when the photographer asks where is her “pa,” she says, “he ain’t my pa.”
Back in the hotel room, Addie is smoking again, not even trying to look like a cute little girl to win over Moses. He says they will be giving Trixie Delight and her maid, Imogene (P. J. Johnson), a ride to Topeka, Kansas. He is very defensive saying she is a proper lady and that Addie is always saying they should help others. Of course, he is not being honest with Addie, as his interests are to help himself to sexual offerings.
Addie is very angry about giving up her front seat to Trixie and sitting in the back with Imogene. Trixie babbles on about her experiences, talking about dancing where a mayor attended and how a newspaper ran a large photograph of her. But, she also leaves out sordid stories, that Imogene likes to bring up, like when a man tried to crack a bottle over her head or when Trixie was almost thrown in jail. Trixie is another character that tries to put on a false front about who she is.
They stop for dinner and Addie shows her resistance to having Trixie come along by complaining they already stopped for lunch, and Addie isn’t hungry. While the two adults go into a rest stop, Addie finds out that Imogene, who she shares a cigarette with, is fifteen, and has worked for Trixie for a year. When asked if Trixie dances, Imogene says she just wags her hips and shakes her behind, so she is advertising being a dancer but is really just selling sex. She says that Trixie left the job because the boss wanted her to “put out” for his friends, and Trixie doesn’t like to provide sex “for free.” Addie asks if Trixie puts out often, and Imogene says she is “Just like a gum machine. You drop something in and she’ll put something out.” The scene is funny not only because of what they say, but because they say it being two young people who seem far advanced in their knowledge of the ways of adults. Addie learns that Trixie won’t have sex with Moses until she can get as much money out of him as she can. So, Trixie is a con artist, too, pretending to like Moses, but using him for her own purposes to survive in a world of deprivation. And, she lied to Imogene, who left with Trixie because she was promised four dollars a week which she hasn’t received. Imogene’s parents thought their daughter would make out okay working for a white woman. But, that was a sham promise, and now Imogene can’t afford to even return home. Unfortunately, the poor, instead of uniting to better themselves, many times exploit what is handy, which is other lower-class people.
Trixie gets Moses to buy her a new dress, and points out how nice a new car looks, suggesting that Moses should consider buying it. Her repetitions about the importance of “bone structure” are very funny, as she stresses appearance over anything of depth. Imogene, showing her scorn for Trixie’s comments, says to Addie that she tried to push Trixie out of a window in Little Rock. After a stop in a field for lunch, Addie makes a stand against Trixie. She wants to be the main female in Moses’s life. She refuses to sit in the back seat anymore, and complains how they aren’t working. Moses stresses his position as an adult and how a child doesn’t tell a grownup what to do. But, Addie continues to sit in the field. Trixie goes to Addie and uses kid-talk, offering a Mickey Mouse coloring book, but she is on the wrong page dealing in childhood gifts with the savvy Addie. Trixie’s phony pleasant exterior is immediately shown to be false when she trips and says fiercely, “Oh, son of a bitch!” She at first tries to win Addie over by saying how the young girl already has “bone structure,” and then offers to show her how to wear makeup. She then gets demanding when none of what she says works and demands that Addie get back in the car. Trixie reconsiders and says that Addie is going to ruin everything, and there’s no need, because Trixie will only be around for a short time to acquire a few small items for herself. She promises that she is not a threat to Addie’s relationship with Moses. She sadly admits that her relationships never last long. Trixie knows that Addie is still young and will have her day manipulating men, so Trixie pleads, just for a while, to let her, who is the physically developed adult, sit in the front seat “with her big tits.” (Actress Kahn wanted to use the less vulgar word “breasts,” but Bogdanovich convinced her, and it works because the character only pretends to be refined). Her argument that the times are tough and she needs to take advantage of the opportunity to use her physical attributes to their advantage wins a smile from Addie, who likes Trixie’s frankness. (Females may be smart here, but the emphasis on stressing their sexuality to succeed may seem not only outdated but offensive now, even though it probably fits the story’s era).
The next scene, however, shows how Trixie convinced Moses to buy a new car. Addie checks her cigar box and the look on Addie’s face shows that a lot of their money is gone. Addie realizes that Trixie means to stay long enough to drain the stash of money, which includes Addie’s share, to get more than just a few small acquisitions. Addie observes that the next hotel clerk, Floyd (Burton Gilliam), fancies Trixie, flirting with her and observing her behind as she walks up the stairs. Addie hatches an elaborate scheme with Imogene, telling her she’ll give the young girl enough money for her to go home. Imogene tells Trixie the next day that Floyd would pay $25 for a good time. Trixie moves from outrage to compliance quickly, wondering where he would get that much money, and she then says she would have to see the cash. Addie, playing the innocent child who wouldn’t lie, now wears a dress and a ribbon, and licks on a lollipop. She tells Floyd that Trixie thinks he looks like the movie star Dick Powell, that Moses is just her business manager, and tells him to print a note to Trixie to be sent with a box of candy. Addie is able to add to the printed text so it doesn’t look suspicious. She writes that Floyd will be up shortly to see her. Addie puts the note in an envelope with $25 and places it and the candy outside Trixie’s door for Imogene to give to Trixie. Addie then tells Trixie that Moses will be gone all day getting something done on the car, making it look as if Trixie has a safe amount of time to cheat on him. The two girls keep Moses away long enough by saying Trixie was having her period. Addie says to Floyd that Trixie wants him right now because she won’t be around much longer, and, says he won’t be disappointed. In a funny shot, Addie follows her words with an arching of her eyebrows a couple of times, signaling that a sexual encounter is assured. He goes up to her room, after which Addie tells Moses he must go to Trixie’s room right away. The two girls see a solemn Moses come down the hall and he tells Addie to pack up because they were leaving right away. The scheme worked, but Addie just revealed to Moses the truth before he was scammed further by Trixie.
Later, while driving, Moses says he can’t understand why Trixie would act that way. Addie says she found out Trixie carried on with a lot of men but didn’t want to tell him because he wouldn’t have believed her, which is true. But he says to her to promise him that when she grows up that she won’t be the kind of woman that goes around deceiving men. Too late, as she already has a head start, and he has been advancing her conniving ways.
Two months have passed and Moses hasn’t been in the mood to work any cons. In a hotel lobby Addie sees a guy flashing a wad of money near a phone booth, making calls and talking to another man. Moses says he’s a bootlegger, and he tells Addie to follow the man. Addie sees that he goes to a bin near some broken-down building and gets out some bottles. Moses found out from the woman at the lobby that the man’s name is Jess Hardin (John Hillerman) and that he is a bootlegger. He also has a big shot brother, but someone showed up at the desk and he couldn’t find out about him. Moses goes to the building and confirms that there is booze in it. He then goes back to the hotel lobby and says he has liquor to sell to Hardin. Moses and Addie steal the man’s own whiskey and sell it back to him for $625. But as they pull away, Hardin is hiding close by, and has heard them.
The police stop them and the sheriff (also played by Hillerman) is the brother of the bootlegger. Their resemblance points to the duality inherent in the current society, and again illustrates the deception and corruption behind the veneer of legitimacy. Only here, it is the legal system that hypocritically acts like it is fairly enforcing the law. The sheriff obviously knows that Moses sold booze for $625. Moses kept a couple of bottles for himself, which makes him guilty of possession, and his car can be confiscated. We think Addie hid the money in her cigar box, but when Sheriff Hardin discovers the hidden compartment, the money is not there. Moses looks at Addie and she indicates that it’s inside her hat, another example of the benign-appearing surface hiding a deception. The sheriff says he’ll check out about the family Moses mentioned that is supposed to be in Missouri. Addie asks the deputy if she could get her stuff back, and she grabs her belongings, along with their car key. She says that she has to go to the bathroom. But, she says, she is afraid and wants Moses to stand outside the door. As they head down the hall, she shocks Moses with her daring by yelling that they have to run. They get to the car and head out, and it is Addie who is the tough one, pressing on the accelerator as they head straight for the sheriff as he exits a building. Moses is scared and shaking as he hollers that the sheriff is shooting at them. But Addie says they’re not hitting them, trying to be reassuring in the midst of the danger. He is negative and says they won’t make it, but Addie is cool under pressure and says they will. Moses tells her they have to get to Missouri and ditch the car. They go around some farm equipment in the road which delays the police. Moses tells Addie that she is giving him heart failure, to which the gutsy Addie stresses, rhetorically, “We made it, didn’t we?”
They stop at a farm where there is a whole family of hillbilly men. These guys don’t want to swap their junky truck for Moses’s car because they can’t haul anything in it. Moses says that he’ll wrestle for it. Moses beats the man who battles him (Randy Quaid), neither of the men fighting fairly, mirroring the desperate times. For a change, Moses surprises the usually insightful Addie with his abilities. They cross the bridge into Missouri and are close to where her aunt lives in St. Joe’s. She wants to know if they are going to do some work, but when he mentions St. Joe’s, she thinks he is going to dump her with the relative. But, he says that it’s a big town and they can do some good business there. She is all smiles knowing he wants to keep her around. He shares a cigarette with her, not the best parenting, but it shows how they are bonding.
Moses is working another scam having to do with a silver mine and he is now singing upbeat song lyrics about how “just around the corner there’s a rainbow in the sky.” It appears Addie’s positive attitude is rubbing off on him, which is ironic considering what happens next. Moses leaves the hotel and encounters Sheriff Hardin and his men. Moses says he can’t get arrested in Missouri because it is outside of Hardin’s jurisdiction. Moses also points out that the sheriff’s brother is a bootlegger, implying he wouldn’t bring in Moses for the same offense. The sheriff, however, just wants to physically hurt Moses. Moses tries to run, but can’t get away. Addie shows up at the place where they were supposed to work the con. The mark is there, but walks because Moses is late. Addie finds Moses in a stairwell and he has been badly beaten. Addie right away says that she kept thirty dollars so they can buy some bibles, and they can work their way up again. However, she soon realizes he is worried about how dangerous their activity is for her and he is going to take her to her Aunt Billie (Rosemary Rumbley).
The two of them say as they arrive at the Aunt’s house that it and her Uncle Daniel outside look nice. They are trying to minimize the effects of their breakup. He gives Addie her stuff, but doesn’t want to sentimentalize the goodbye, probably because he is afraid he will probably cause an emotional scene. To continue to lessen Addie’s attachment to him, Moses continues to say that he’s not her dad despite any physical resemblance. She’s welcomed in by the aunt as he drives away. But, his car overheats. After he pulls over, he sees that she left him a picture of her sitting on the paper moon at the carnival with a message on it. At Aunt Billie’s place there is a piano, something Addie said she wanted, but even that can’t hold her there. She runs after Moses. He tries to be tough saying he doesn’t want her with him anymore. But, she is just as tough and says he still owes her $200. The money from earlier on and the title of the film and the picture of the paper moon are repeated at the end and tie the story together, making a satisfying loop. As the car starts to head off without them, he grabs her stuff and they ride off together.
Director Bogdanovich said it’s a road story, so it’s fitting that the last shot of the movie is the two of them riding off together down what looks like an endless road. It may be a long haul, and their tactics may be as crooked as the path they are following, but they will travel it as if they were father and daughter.
The next film is Frost/Nixon.