RIORI Presents Installment #196: Joseph Kosinski’s “Tron: Legacy” (2010)


The Film…


The Players…

Jeff Bridges, Garett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Bruce Boxleitner, with Michael Sheen, James Frain and Daft Punk (no, really).


The Plot…

Almost 30 years after computer programmer extraordinaire Kevin Flynn disappeared from his CEO position at Encom, his son Sam receives a very curious communique regarding dad’s probable whereabouts.

Young Sam listened to his father regale him with digital dreams and analog adventures he had while working within Encom’s intranet, The Grid. Back then they were just cool bedtime stories. Pure fiction, but no less real to Sam.

Turns out the call for help came in the form of an archaic page leading to dad’s old, abandoned video arcade. Curious, Sam opens up a past that he always thought ol’ dad was just making believe. Being sucked into the Encom System to win video games or die trying. Pure fantasy, right?

Well, like father like son as it’s been said.


The Rant…

Ever hear of the “Eisenstein Effect?”

No? Well, more on that later. Right now I feel a need to recap some sh*t. That and I aim to make this installment the longest in RIORI‘s lowly history. Even more bloated than the doomed I’m Not There installment. Why? Because this time out (again) I’ve got a lot to say. Again. On your bike.

For those scant few loyal subs to RIORI, you may have noticed I return to a lot the same theories, themes and stories surrounding the making of the films I review and the dubious machinations that are responsible for their release. I harp on pacing a lot, true. I thumb my nose at the perceived money-grubbing practices Hollywood tries to bamboozle audiences with, yes. That repeated, tired thing about the blues being played yadda yadda yadda. All true, most relevant and with hope insightful. I’d like to believe The Standard is as close to a proper mission statement as you’re going to get around here. That’s why once in a while I feel the need to reheat matters of how this blog came into being.

Wait. Might be easier to link to the frothing frenzy that is my homepage. I’ll wait.

*clickbait*

Alrighty then. Remember The Standard? One of the reasons I started this blog was to deconstruct the implied conceit and deception Hollywood has trolled us with over the past 20 years. However recall that the movie business is just that: a business. A multi-million dollar business with a relatively plastic overhead. I say relatively because there’s a butterfly effect in how studios make ends meet. If a certain tentpole does fantastic clean up at the box office and/or home viewing, the floodgates open for potential sequels, merch, contracts and perhaps give second tier stars a breakout role to further their cachet. It’s never, “Welp, we did well here.” It’s more like, “Welp, we cleaned up here!” The first school of thought is moving on to the next big project. The second is what to do with this hot potato except stuff it back in oven again until it’s a charred cinder. Use it up. Beat it into the ground. It’s akin to why Dave Matthews isn’t popular much these days.

Bottom line, and I guess it needs repeating, RIORI was established as a watchdog to sniff out movies that may as well left for dead as far as Hollyweird could be concerned. Essentially I’m here as a PSA, advising all you curious folks out there in the blogosphere to not just take what the big deal movies throw at you and praying you bite. It was that way when I was a kid and much hasn’t changed, until nowadays when it’s nakedly blatant. All I ask for is  the chill feeling of watching a flick regardless of what the “experts” may say. I ain’t no expert, just a dork with a blog. Big Trouble In Little China is one of my fave films, and in the endgame I am curious about sequels to my favorite flicks as well as tasteful digital kablooey. But like LeVar Burton cautioned after recommending new reading material, “Don’t take my word for it.”

Whew. That was a good one, eh? [pant, pant]

*cicadas buzzing*

Where was I? Oh yeah, this week’s flick. CGI and gaming and sequels and attempting to realize a plot. And the Eisenstein Effect. We’ll cover all that claptrap soon enough.

Right now let’s get one thing—no, two things—out of the way.

One, the original Tron was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Still is as a grown-up; lotsa fun. Don’t know what to watch? Queue up Tron for it’s CGI and Star Wars-flavored story. In addition to the movie being prescient science fiction with fantastic visuals and a versatile cast, it introduced me to one of my most beloved actors Jeff Bridges. From The Fisher King to The Big Lebowski to The Last Picture Show, he’s always good, engaging and humorous, as well as self-effacing, thoughful and with a great head of hair. Big fanboy here.

The second is pretty much an open secret. When the original Tron dropped in 1982 it was the first motion picture to feature (then) cutting edge animation via CGI. Computer generated imagery. It was then (now a tired cliche) a “game changer.” Video game changer, if you will. When Oscar season rolled around for the class of ’82, Tron got snubbed for a Best Visual Effects nod. Why? The Academy made the claim that the producers of the film “cheated.” They used computers. Consider that almost 40 years later, what with the MCU tearing up the box office. Without computers nowadays, big budget blast-fests that Martin Scorsese rolls his bushy browed eyes at would not be possible. For example, I saw on YouTube the gear Brolin had to wear and be green screened to turn him into the power hungry, misguided alien Thanos in pre-production Endgame. Without those zeroes and ones he would’ve suffocated in a deluge of latex. CGI a cheat? Pshaw.

Me nowadays? I’ve grown wary of excessive CGI in movies. Keyword excessive, and how’s that? Sh*t that’s irrelevant to propelling the plot. Bullet time. Lens flares. Fast motion trickery. And other silly stuff like digitally removing the march of time on actors. Cyber face-lifting. First time I became aware of this insidious practice was a music video for the then latest Rolling Stones video back in the 90s; some of the facial crags on Mick and Keef’s face were digitally airbrushed. Um, these were the Stones who set well known Guinness-level debauchery and rough living water marks. Why bother with the buffering? Did it make the song better? Was dumb to me. Still is, and yet.

There is that elephant in the room. Too many flicks these days rely on F/X to drive the plot, rather than apply an engaging story or sharp direction. Beyond every. Single. Animated. Feature these days, there’s a unholy host of movies that exist just to show off the newest, gee whiz, bucky gizmo digital whatsis like a kid on Xmas, shaking the presents. Middling stuff like Van Helsing, the Fantanstic Four reboot, the original Fantastic Four, Cats, Deep Blue Sea and whatever else Renny Harlin got his meathooks on. All of those movies are all about style over substance—and may end up under my scalpel in the near future—and small wonder why you felt cheated after watching them. Okay, some of those might be guilty pleasures, but it doesn’t change my point. A good movie is all about story, acting and direction. Not pixelation.

So what’s my point? Well, it’s no lie that CGI in movies is here to stay. This is mostly a good thing when smartly applied. IMHO, special effects should complement the film, not drive it. The original Tron is a good example. As a kid, despite the coolness of the visuals, I was invested in how Flynn, Ram and the titular hero would restore the Encom System to a free state rather becoming the digital equivalent of Stalin’s postwar Russia. Sure, I’d not pass up a ride in a light cycle, but I’d rather see the heroes triumph over the forces or darkness. Hear what I’m screaming? You don’t need the bleeding edge anything for a satisfying story like that which, let’s face it, never gets old.

Despite that Hollywood profits are not steeped in art, but rather wanna apply the latest digital carrot to lure you in, sometimes there’s a synchronicity where money meets art and shakes hands. A profitable film earns awards and esteem, despite what the snots at the AMPAS deem “proper.” Did Tron: Legacy achieve that? Was it as fun and cutting-edge as the first Tron?

Maybe. Hang on. As always. Hush, my darling Player One.

I’ve been a gamer pretty much since the 5th grade. A friend of mine had one of those classic Atari 2600 consoles, the kind with the decals made to resemble wood grain. We would hang out after school—perhaps a bit too long—o.d’ing on classic titles like Adventure, Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Vanguard and Pitfall! Very simple games, primitive compared to today’s titles. But they were fun and that’s what mattered. You betcha.

When Saturday would roll around—still without a console of my own—me, my crew and a gym sock full of scrounged quarters would pester someone’s mom to take us to the video arcade at the mall. It was to be an adventure, and sort of a “scream till daddy stops the car” tableau vivant. Set the stage, so to speak.

There was this (of course now defunct) video arcade which was the vanguard to plunk away a Saturday afternoon. It was called the Space Port, smack dab in the middle of the local mall. The entrance was made to resemble a UFO, neon lights and the whole wad. Mecca to me and my digitally drooling crew.

If you were a kid in the 80s, your joystick would tingle at the opportunity to try your hand at one of the latest machines Space Port tempted. There was Dragon’s Lair, which used then new Laserdisc technology to render a platformer illustrated by former Disney animator Don Bluth (EG: The Secret Of NIMH, The Land Before Time, An American Tail, et al). Those nifty Nintendo gallery machines that let you play a variety of console games, from Super Mario to Castlevania to Bubble Bobble and others. Sit down Sega sim racers like Pole Position or the motorcycling Hang-On! Only spending Xmas at FAO Schwarz could rival such a cornucopia of fun. Not to mention precious few grown-ups around to kick you out of your zone.

Back then gaming was not in the mainstream as is now. Video games were a culty thing, reserved for freaks and geeks who both needed an escape from the drudgery of peer pressure as well find a place to bond. The arcade was a hotbed of social activity not unlike Star Trek conventions, comic book shops, nascent otaku, kids who sucked at basketball and were frankly persona non gratia to the fairer sex. Oh, gamers back then were almost exclusively male. The arcade was the middle school version of a man cave. Boy cave. Same diff. A home away from home.

As was then, it’s always been about escapism even before my young, Twizzler addled mind understood the concept. Gaming then as is now is like getting lost in a good book, or a good album, or a good movie before God. Gaming was a portal into another existence that in addition to escapism, you were in charge. The book example is potent, especially based against required reading from school that once you write up the report you might be blooped for your own interpretation rather than what teach deemed the “proper” way to view the story (EG: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was about our hero hitching a ride down the Mighty Missip, soaking up the local culture with his fellow outcast buddy, Jim. Did you read the author’s note?). In sum, you were in control of these digital worlds, and no adult or popular kid could tell you different. Pocket full of coins, and you were a god.

Not unlike comic shops, the arcade was pitiable bubble, reserved for the lost and forlorn who needed a place to bond. Aim for the high score, debate which was better: Space Invaders or Galaga or Asteroids or Arkanoid. We gamer geeks knew the difference, and such discourse was valued for it was nothing the cool basketballers would get. Which is probably why the original Tron resonated with me and my fellow goony gamers.

The original Tron director Steven Lisberger got it. Not only did he forsee the potential of CGI in movies, but was also prescient how video games would eventually gain traction in the mainstream in the near future. His CGI rendered cinescapes reflected the games of the time. Think the angular styles of Atari and Colecovision console games. Watching Tron with its dark tableau punctuated with sharp blues and reds just screaming now. Well, now is now then, but if the original flick didn’t hold up we—I—wouldn’t be dismantling the sequel made almost 30 years later. That’s staying power, just like the allure of the arcade or a new PS5.

Tron was this is us. The junior gamers got it. When I was a pup I knew I was on the right track when my mom after seeing the film proclaimed she “didn’t get it.”

Score.


The Effect…

About the “Eisenstein Effect” (finally that). Ever heard of it? Of course not, because I made it up. Follow.

I consider it the gold standard of cinematic tribute. It’s where in a key scene (or scenes) of a contemporary movie pays tribute to a classic film image-for-image as homage, rather than some cherry on a DQ Blizzard held upside down. A good example of this is in Star Wars: A New Hope where Luke, Han and the gang receive accolades from Leia for a job well done. Director George Lucas more or less lifted this scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s epic Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will, and dubious subject matter be damned. Another fine example is—with not much surprise—how the big fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, vol 2, was lifted from Bruce Lee’s debut film, Fists Of Fury. Even animated flicks are prone this kind of tribute; Disney’s Beauty And The Beast‘s final dance scene mirrored Sleeping Beauty’s. And Aronofsky’s mindf*ck of a PSA Requiem For A Dream documenting drug abuse and its joys? Yeah, that bathtub scene. An identical scene (if not circumstance) appears in Satoshi Kon’s psychological thriller anime Perfect Blue.

Lastly comes from a fave film from my youth. The one that made the late Sean Connery my favorite actor. Brian de Palma’s big screen interpretation of The Untouchables, what with the daring shootout scene lifted from the latter’s seminal film, The Battleship ‘Potemkin’. It’s not ripping off. It’s homage, and director Sergei Eisenstein created Potemkin. Not to mention innumerable filmmakers like those above who offer a twist on an iconic film scene. A tip of the hat, if you will. I consider such flourishes as Easter Eggs for cinephiles. An inside joke between strangers. It’s a good thing, and enhances some intimacy about how we film lovers love films and vice versa. You get it or you don’t.

There’s a curious thing about interpretation and review: depending on who digests it says what the feature was all about. I’m not talking about personal opinion. I’m talking about the court of public opinion. See, Potemkin dropped in 1925, and therefore a silent film. It depicted the harrowing nature about serving in wartime on a Russian cruiser. Lenin himself (yes, that Lenin) praised the film as a triumph of propaganda depicting the bravery and sophistication of the Russian Navy. This was something of a myopic view, for Eisenstein cut his masterpiece as a caution of the futility of war and how Russian sailors were no more than cannon fodder. I’ve seen the film. Guess where my sympathies lie.

The Eisenstein Effect is, in essence, honest cinematic tribute. A director was inspired by a classic film and decided to appropriate a scene, twist it around in a tasteful manner and incorporate it into contemporary milieu. The original Tron did this, but unlike Lucas, Tarantino and de Palma director Lisberger caged scenery from the arcades like the Space Port. What was the primary influence, which an audience may follow.

When Flynn and his fellow renegade programs get beamed down to the game grid, they are charged to play versions of the hot game titles of the day. It’s all Atari fully realized. The Lightcycle and Space Paranoids of Flynn’s user creations perfectly echoed the arcade hits of the day. Lisberger was inspired by the arcades, and rendered those games lovingly in his film. Not the “conventional” Eisenstein Effect, but I made that crap up and was spot on in respecting the source material, namely those old skool, quarter gobbling, flash and dash arcade games, which your Mom didn’t get.

In the endgame if you think about it (but not too much) sequels can also be tributes. Sure, there’ve been some very deliberate footprints laid out. Some movies invite the potential of an overarching story (again: the Star Wars saga and the MCU). I’d never thought in 30 years the original Tron could invite a sequel. It does make logical sense, though. There was more of a story to tell, since the first film heralded in the digital age of filmmaking, and such technology is ever evolving. I suppose now that computer use is not longer relegated to geeks, hackers and the military—all one and the same, tee hee—as hot as it was in the early 80s. In the early teens it was CGI upload all the way. As of now: viral TikToks. Ain’t the future of digital video as entertainment grand? Sigh.

Yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know. Shaddap and cut to the chase. I’ve felt for too long us moviegoers have been relegated to steerage, assumed to play well for crusts. Some perspective is always in order. It’s akin to how Tom Jefferson commented that one should never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. You ever flinch at the price of a basic pack of Twizzers at concessions? Of course you don’t. I don’t. Sue me. Like with all our pleasures and sins, you get what you give.

Beyond the big bucket o’popcorn, a sequel demands some attention. It once illustrated that some hot property of a film like the first Star Wars episode, or that The Godfather‘s source material insisted two movies to tell the whole saga, or bloody anything that moves too close to the MCU. Sequels are at most negative return on investment. Sometimes the first film warrants some chapters, like with Star Wars, The Godfather, the second, third and fourth Star Trek films, the entire James Bond 007 franchise, the Toy Story trilogy and Indiana Jones. There was more to expound upon, more stories inviting a cohesive whole. That last bit may be why those series flourished, aside of profit. I’d like to think so, for there are endless, unnecessary sequel made like I named back a bit that were nothing more than cash grabs. Example? The Die Hard series should of quit it with Vengeance, and should’ve skipped the second movie out of good taste (an icicle? Really?).

The aforementioned is important, for Tron: Legacy lifts its entire story—sometimes scene for scene—from the original film. Eisenstein again. It’s not a rip off, but a respectful nod dedicated to similar nodding fans saying to themselves “I get it.” Considering that director Kosinski was my age when the original Tron dropped I can only hope/pray that he was so in love as I’ve been that he had once watched Potemkin also. Or The Untouchables. Or pissed away a lot of quarters standing in front of a Timepilot machine. All worthwhile activities, by the way.

So. When does a sequel become a cash grab, a legit story progression of a tribute to the original film? A curious question, which these rants have not properly answered.

As the old adage goes, “The proof is in the pudding.” And I dislike pudding, unless I don’t.

Please deposit another 25 cents to continue.


The Story…

Dateline 1982: Encom’s software whiz kid Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is officially acknowledged as the programmer of several very successful arcade games. By his new resolve, Flynn rose to the rank of Encom’s CEO and launched a digital crusade; indeed computers are the guide to driving the future! With that flourish, Encom endeavored in shareware gratis to all American school districts and private universities alike. Information should be shared, not hoarded.

Dateline 1989: The birth of the World Wide Web, and info guru Kevin Flynn’s going off the grid. Encom’s prodigy was never seen again.

Dateline 2010: Upon the proper release of Encom’s next gen OS, Sam Flynn (Hedlund) keeps up his annual prank fest, thumbing his nose at the high and mighty Encom. They built his dad up, they took him down, and possibly out of sight.

Dateline 2012: Sam’s been wondering and a little less than pissed off about where Dad escaped to. No message, no reason, no clue. Until a very old skool message from wherever gets paged, before God, to Dad’s old “partner-in-crime” Alan Bradley (Boxleitner). Alan suggests the page was meant for Sam, seeing it was sent from Dad’s abandoned video arcade. Naturally Sam’s curiosity takes over, and wending his way through the forgotten machines he locates what seems to be Dad’s old Encom intranet portal. After all these years of Dad waxing philosophical about Encom’s System and the Grid, was there a pixel of truth in all those stories?

Click AGREE to comply.


The Review…

Fair warning. A lot of the following is riddled with spoilers. Hate doing it, but I gotta make things clear. Now who want’s s’mores?

This is odd, but akin to The Godfather saga (but less grand), one must see the original Tron to fully appreciated its Legacy. Just saying you need to watch the first to understand/appreciate the second. Lots of sequels play that way. I mentioned above about how sequels must enhance the going story to be worthwhile viewing. Yes, most part twos are a charred potato, rushed into production before the domestic box office tally has been fully scored. You can probably count those kinds on all yer fingers and toes, and if you’re a guy that makes thirteen.

I’ll see myself out.

After this. I feel that a little gestation period between sequels and threquels and prequels against the primary film helps justify an ongoing existence. Consider this: The first two Godfather movies were filmed sequentially, as were the original Superman movies. Both were in the can at the same time and were later tweaked to better bridge the two chapters. Our renegade archaeologist Indiana Jones worked in reverse; the cast proper was introduced in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, then Indy was back in the first proper prequel, Temple Of Doom and then the gang en toto was back in full in real time for The Last Crusade (save Marion, but now Dad). But Marion would show up years later, so yeah, full circle. Good examples of sequels and their ilk; there’s more of a story there, so let’s explore. And, yeah, I left out Star Wars now. Those chapters do go without saying, yes.

All being said, when a sequel gets released lightyears after the mother film, I start scratching my head. Like I said, sometimes it works (EG: Aliens, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2, etc). Most of the time it doesn’t (EG: Caddyshack 2, dishonorable mentions The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, any Jaws feature after the first one, etc). Anyone with a brain in their ticket holding stub knows what they are most likely getting into. Not to sound all grand or nothing, but quoting Thomas Jefferson once again, “People pretty much get the government they deserve.” Butter topping on that?

The last time I recalled a belated sequel to a movie was for the weeper Terms Of Endearment. This Oscar friendly paean dropped in 1983, and won a few vital awards, like Best Picture and whatever. It’s loose sequel, The Evening Star was unleashed to nobody in 1996. That’s a 13 year hiatus. The original Tron came out in 1982. The sequel in 2010. Wanna do the math?

That’s 18 years. Eighteen. I know I mentioned decent sequels demand a little breathing room. The crew behind Tron: Legacy must’ve been asthmatics. It’s all a good thing. Calm down. Here, have a Twizzler.

In hindsight after seeing Legacy its slow gestation made sense. Consider how the home video game consoles evolved so rapidly in the past 25 years. We’re at PS5 at the time of this installment, and consider its legacy since the 90s. Gaming has become a subculture to mainstream in a very short time if you think about it. The official console wars (not war, but plural) have been raging since the PSX dropped in 1995. Before that it was a pissing contest. Nintendo versus Sega, always trying to outsell more units. Players back then gave little sh*t to the inner workings of the SNES or Genesis (and their offspring), so long as the games were good. That last thing still holds today, what with true gamers knowing a tad more that just bitrate. Oh, and the Internet came along so there.

It is utterly numbing how fast consoles try to outdo one another. Despite being retro, I keep abreast of the latest specs of the next gen consoles and their gaming fodder, I just don’t invest in them. Why? Budget, nostalgia, budget, speed runs, ran out of HDMI ports and budget. And for the record I have eight and/or nine retro consoles corralled into a very exhausted Vizio flatscreen and multiple switch boxes. My pedigree as retro speaks volumes, and yet I still have a g/f to play Pokémon GO with. She’s the better trainer BTW, but I have two—two—fully maxed out Raichu. A boy and a girl. Wait, Pokémon breed?

*leaves rustling*

I’d like to think I have some qualifications as a gamer, albeit old skool. I mean I still have my very first console the g.1 NES—which I got as a twelfth b’day gift and is still working fine 20-some years later, thank you very much—a g.2 SNES (not the “toaster”), a Sega Master System, the Sega Genesis mk. 2, the underrated Sega Saturn, the extremely underrated Sega Dreamcast, a Wii, a Game Boy Advance SP (gotta play classic Pokémon somehow, pika pika) and a PS2 slim (which I bought new after hawking my old PSX and g.1 PS2). Anything else I check out Steam. I’d like to lay a claim I understand how a Tron sequel was inevitable, but not immediately so.

A movie based on/inspired by video gaming like the original Tron required patience for any going audience to catch up. Took a long time, even considering 90s boom. Now gamers are far more tech savvy, demand better programming and now we have MMORPG’s that connect the whole f’n planet into a virtual gaming world not unlike the Encom gaming Grid from those innocent days of yore that just needed a pocketful of coins and a Big Gulp to power up. Or a buddy you’d abuse to play Atari again at his house after school, guzzling down all his Gatorade. True story.

(I also almost bankrupted myself years ago playing Phantasy Star Online v2.0 on my broadband Dreamcast, which is why now I swear off MMOs. Also a true story.)

Legacy evolved as gaming evolved. Think the Metroid Prime saga, Wipeout Fury and other s/f racers, the Mass Effect series, etc. The inspiration was there—another tribute—based on how far we’ve come in gaming, for good and for ill. The games are more sophisticated now than the quarter gulpers of yesteryear. Legacy dropped at the same time when the PS3 (one of the most hot properties at the time) and the Xbox 360 in its stride engaged in battle, and the Wii swept them both under the rug with the first attempt at actual physical engagement into the game world. And Steam had already been viable since 2003. Like I keep hammering, gaming has become one with the mainstream.

So with evolution, a movie based on gaming and it’s ascent into the mainstream, despite said long gestation, I supposed it was about time that Tron would invite a sequel. And it did. And with that it did the gamers proud. That and those who like quick, crisp, organic CGI not exclusively reserved for action scenes or reducing facial wrinkles. Okay, all that was there, but there was also that ur-Eisenstein thing. And like the original, Legacy was also prescient as well as potent. Consider the film’s patient timeline, for instance. I’m pretty sure the original Tron was relegated to cult thing and some dandruff Disney was quick to brush away. However in TV land a lot of series were revived due to pressure from Internet posts and sympathetic network affiliates that needed to fluff up their schedule (EG: think Futurama, Family Guy and MST3K).

Here’s a kind of cinematic clickbait with Legacy. In the opening/flashback scenes, the last time young Sam spent with his dad Kevin was in the summer of 1989. That was the official/unoffical year when the US government declassified their network for commercial use. Look it up:

Berners-Lee, Timothy. Weaving The Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. Harper San Francisco (1999).

No hyperlink here; you’re gonna have to do some homework. The future just happened.

*burp*

That was enlightening. Back to the review.

Just a moment, some clarification. My g/f has become the practical Siskel to my jelly donut Ebert when plying my trade. Over the past few installments she’s watched the selected movies with me, offering up her observations and opinions. She did this a lot with Legacy, doubtless because we watched the original the night before and she found that movie to be a lot of fun. So as I have in the recent past I will make now policy: whenever you read “K:” in a comment it was her insight, not mine. She’s been very helpful, and deserves credit. Moving on.

At its core Legacy is about family. The ties that bind and all that entails. The first film had a hint of that. Fellow programmers trying to maintain the ethics of their once cottage industry up against the corporate machine, but there was no blood there. At the outset, Legacy illustrates the bond between Kevin Flynn and young Sam. K: Sam has all of his dad’s Tron merch on display in his bedroom, illustrating young Sam believes in Dad. It’s a bit touching, that and Kevin is just as much a kid and his son. Bonding. It draws you in, unless you have ice in your spine. The movie lets you melt at this point, and also inform you as to who Sam becomes as a grown-up. Namely, living in a garage as all good nerds do when creating. Like Dad with his hacking for the greater good..

Such a setup can be one’s undoing. Like with all sequels, there must be more to tell but also honor the source material. Legacy‘s example? Check out all the motorcycles in the first act. A nod to Tron? Maybe. Foreshadowing? Definitely. When we finally get down to game grid level, the Encom System resembles the gamescape of early 10s games as the original mimicked the early 80s arcade analogs. Like I implied: tech is ever evolving, and with Legacy as does the continuing saga. In sum, Legacy to Sam is all about catching up, if not with his absentee father but also experiencing that the Grid is real, and will challenge you as it did Dad. A family thing, remember?

What I dug about Legacy was that it was not as cold as the original. From my experience, director Lisberger wanted his world of Tron to be cold, yet producing its own light via the landscape crackling with electricity. At the outset if Sam’s adventure in the upgraded Grid is heated by the blooming reds of corrupted files. It’s not as clinical as the prime film. Legacy is more “symphonic” than the original. More organic. The first film had a soundtrack derived from the bleeps and bloops of old skool synths and arcade machines. Now we have Daft Punk driving the soundtrack, well adept at creating futuristic soundscapes (I own their first two vital albums. An inspired bit of contracting). Everything screams (K:) “Upgrade!” And it sure was. We had lots of flash, dash and Matrix-style action, however not really detracting from the family drama that acts as the backbone of the plot. As I said the environment of Legacy was less cold than the original. And much to my surprise, it worked.

Thanks to the new programming, Legacy‘s new color scheme was key to and thanks for its keen application this time out. I can’t compare the first the second film enough, but the use off color was an extension of the story thread. Back in ’82, blue was good, red was bad, CLU was yellow. And it was a heckuva reveal when the one-time cyber bloodhound of Kevin Flynn evolved/mutated in our antagonist, CLU v2.0. Yellow in Legacy meant bad news for Sam and crew. Think about it, if you’re working from your own private agendum who gives a sh*t what side you belong. And Bridges as CLU paired against virtual Kevin made a very clever Jekyll vs Hyde dynamic. Hey, sometime the old crap works.

Despite how CLU loomed large over the advanced grid, it’s not to say that Kevin and Sam are mere pawns in his game. But before we get to that, let us consider this “plot hole.” Namely: how the f*ck did CLU came back to full operation? This was a major issue with Tron fanboys. I had to ruminate over this bugaboo also. This glitch harkens back to young Kevin trying to crack the code to hack into Encom’s intranet.

WARNING: TECHNOBABBLE AHEAD!

Inquiring geeks want to know. In the real world, CLU is syntax with the computer language ALGOL (algorithmic language), which was developed at MIT back in the day designed for more or less “seek and/or destroy” programming. The root sub-language is in Cluster (ergo: “CLU”). Its syntax is designed to unravel very complex numbers. Namely, a pre-programmed rouge program to weed out unneeded data that may hinder a network, designed by an independent user (EG: Flynn as hacker). And now you know. Blame MIT.

Whew. Yer welcome.

That being babbled, CLU v1.0 was not destroyed by Master Control two decades hence, but rather appropriated into Encom’s network, rather than expunged as we were led to believe in the first movie. I bring this up to silence all the Tron dorks who were screaming “What the f*ck?” back in 2010. Do yer f*cking homework you hackers you. I did, and it took less time than dial-up. So there.

Whew v2.0.

Wait. K: Kevin Flynn’s present memory disk is the memory bank for the entire new Grid he created. It hold’s all system’s memories. If that gets into CLU’s hands everyone is in trouble. Smart girl, and also commented, “the student became the teacher.” Bingo. Moving on.

Back to the color thing; color’s vital here, day. Since we figured out that CLU and his minions are trying to achieve separation (read: sentience a la the MCP back then), not to mention insurrection. K: The characters that are red imply, “Yer gonna get burned, Sam,” as if on fire in rage; the blues are oppressed and must remain calm. It’s all zeroes and ones. And it’s a very apt analogy.

Am I looking too deeply into all of this? You bet. It’s fun to pick apart films you like. Star Wars nerds, change my mind.

But, as always, there are hiccups with Legacy. There always are. There was a sh*tton of data to download with Legacy, maybe to get the newbs caught up. Legacy had a lot more exposition and navel-gazing this time out. The original was all about show me, don’t tell me. The basic plot invited that simple, effective precept. Legacy felt more like the Matrix sequels, trying to reinvent the bicycle. The upgraded Grid is so very life and death that any mistep from the emotional Users involved will unravel reality. Heavy portent, and far from the light-hearted tone of the first film. I’m saying that Legacy is a well-constructed sequel (more of a tribute really), even for non-fanboys, but heavy, man. Heavy.

The execution here is less basal than the first movie, and jazzed up for more “sophisticated” PlayStation pilots—a lot more stylish—but the song remained the same. Good versus evil. Cool CGI that complemented the film rather than weigh it down. Nifty soundtrack, In sum, overall and counting the numbers Legacy tickled my 7 year old self now as for the same fun with the first one: digital fantasy, efficient action, geeky humor and devoid of artistic merit beyond the frame rate. Legacy sure as heck didn’t feel two hours long. Pacing, as always. Regardless of exposition and thanks to Jeff Bridges in a dual role.

Hear what I’m screaming AMPAS?

From the deck of the Potemkin: End of line.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a good companion piece to the original. Watch it paired with the first Tron and make it a double feature. It’s all good popcorn fodder, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.


The Stray Observations…

  • “We’re always on the same team.”
  • Mickey logo on Sam’s motorcycle helmet. Discuss.
  • Now that is a big door!
  • K: Was that some sort of shadow simulation over Sam’s route to Dad’s lab? Like with the last movie? Again, sharp girl.
  • No one: Sam’s shop’s named DuMont, probably honoring Walter’s avatar in the first movie. Ever wonder where that moniker came from? History time! The DuMont TV network launched in 1942, and was rival to ABC. Long story short, DuMont’s programming was too ahead of its time, but later cable TV took a nod from its misunderstood scheduling based on content, not just entertaining (read: like The History Channel, Discovery Channel and Food Network in the 90s). DuMont folded in 1956, almost forgotten. Walter was co-founder of Encom, old and almost forgotten. And now you know.
  • “I’m tired and I smell like jail.”
  • Anti-Tron purrs like an overfed cat.
  • Oh Lord. Not Journey again.
  • Notice all those motorcycles.
  • Did that dinner scene remind you of the last act of 2001?
  • K: Like father, like son.
  • I felt that Wilde was only brought on board cuz she was hot. And duh!
  • And her character’s name Quorra, Sam’s digital love interest and Kevin’s operative, means “heart.” Subtle?
  • “Made it.”
  • Sometimes life moves faster than zeros and ones. K: Kinda like Cheerios. Me: Kinda profound that.
  • “Yer messin’ with my Zen thing, man!”
  • Does this installment compete in length with I’m Not There? I lost word count.
  • “I’m a User. I’ll improvise.”

The Next Time…

Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl make for an unlikely pair of KIllers, but hey, so are most newlyweds.

Huh?

Pull!


 

RIORI Presents Installment #192: Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008)


The Film…


The Players…

Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and naturally Clint Howard.


The Plot…

In 1977, with Watergate still heavy on America’s mind, journeyman television personality David Frost is curious about Nixon’s unwillingness to discuss the scandal. He manages to convince the disgraced president for a few interviews to allow the man a chance to set the historical record straight. Warts and all.

Only Britain would go to Nixon.


The Rant…

Yeah, yeah. I’m still tweaking the site. I’m trying to make it read a little more efficient, read more pro and lend a hand to any newbs that link here. Ain’t that a great line of bullsh*t or what? Now on with this week’s lucky contestant.

Every time I watch the news—which isn’t often—I ask myself, “Who in the world would want to be the President?” After air traffic controllers, EMTs and javelin catchers the presidency must be the most stressful job in the world. Sure, there are perks. Nice house, Air Force One, Camp David, unlimited travel opportunities, the occasional park named after you and whatnot. However most of the time it’s being under constant scrutiny, tons of desk jockeying, dealing with skeezy lobbyists and not to mention skeezy heads of state from around the world, always butting heads with Congress, signing more stuff and being blamed for the sh*t the previous president set in motion, which overrides your original platform. Small wonder Reagan got addicted to jelly beans, LBJ to Fresca and JFK to Marilyn Monroe. We all seek release in our own way.

Do you want to know what I think the biggest thing that’s a strike against being president? Tough, shush and listen: it’s the lack of privacy. You would always be under the microscope by the government, your constituents and the media in equal, oft strident measure. Understanding the president is the international face of America they gave up their privacy as soon as they were sworn in, if not even on the campaign trail. Here’s the Oval Office, friend. This is as small as your world gets now, plus you better lose that ashtray.

Like with any other public office, the President’s face is omnipresent. State Of The Union? The President. A memorial speech? The President. To apply weight to a PSA? The President. The opening pitch at the Nationals opening season? The Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn? A summit? A press conference? Prez Prez Prez. Whew. With all that public spectacle the President deserves some privacy. Like that’s ever going to happen. Here’s a minor example of what I’m getting at: you may recall when President Clinton adopted his dog Buddy and they went jogging together (with an unobtrusive coterie of Secret Service agents along for the ride) in the early morning? No big deal; folks jog with their dogs all the time. Ah, but this was the President going for a jog, with the First Dog in tow, no less. Out came the jogging camera crew to cover…how Bubba and Buddy went for walkies.

That kind of jive is unquestionably silly. A man and his dog. A matter of state. The internet cracked in half. Whatever and change the channel. The guy in the Oval Office needs to feel normal now and again. To get away from it all once on a while, hence Camp David, and even that isn’t sacred anymore. Jeez, where does the uber-stressed out uber-politician find some R&R?

They don’t. Not really. The last time I heard that some President got any quality time was when Teddy Roosevelt went camping or hunting a jillion miles away from a newspaper. Or tubby Taft being the ultra baseball nut (he was the first Prez to throw the first pitch of the season, as well as accidentally creating the seventh inning stretch) and never missing a home game for the Washington Nationals. Or even when Obama played Wii Sports with Sasha and Malia before bed. And how the hell do I know all this crap if we’re talking about possible Presidential privacy?

Wanna lead the country? Take down that Facebook page. Ain’t gonna need it no mo’.

Here’s the flipside.

There are many adages regarding how those in high places must be careful when minding their productivity and quality therein. “Who watches the watchers themselves?” “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “No, I am your father!” Warnings and cautions to those in power better watch their ass when it comes to public relations. And let’s face facts, many presidents were caught with their pants down, so to speak. Jefferson, JFK and Clinton all got tagged as cheaters. Lincoln had clinical depression. Grant was a functioning alcoholic. Both Hayes and Dubya’s ascent to the throne were in question. Obama smoked. Trump once hosted a reality show. No one’s perfect, but to have their dirty laundry aired by the papers, the radio, Fox News and Google? Where does it stop? Should it? Should the Prez be accountable for every bare scintilla of action, which may effect the government in particular and the republic as a whole?

Yes.

Sometimes those angular secrets reveal the intentions or even the true nature of the President. Either some hidden agendum or a skeleton in the closet (“Mr Jefferson? Sally Hemings on line 2. It’s a girl!”) may affect the normally rational judgment we hope our elected leaders posses. Or not. Most of us couldn’t be bothered by what gets churned out on Capitol Hill so long as our roads are paved and the price of Arizona tea never goes up. But there are inner workings, always inner workings that drive the president beyond his public office. It’s called being human, and most humans regardless of title have at least one hidden agendum in the closet. The best presidential example?

You guessed it. Richard Milhaus Nixon.

This choice is not just because of this week’s movie. Nor is it how his administration crashed and burned into scandal and dust. It’s about how “the mighty have fallen.” Drop the portcullis. Release the hounds. Unleash the Kraken. The failed Nixon administration and the ensuing folderol is a shame really. Nixon was born to politic, but the demons that plagued him from the past came to the fore once in office. Heist by his own petard and boy did the man go down in flames, and not some blaze of glory. Go f*ck off America. And Cambodia. And Laos. And accountability. Dammit, Tricky Dick, WTF went wrong?

To keep it short, it was an open secret that Nixon kept a list of his enemies towards the end of his time in the White House. He had over 20 names on the list, including trusted NPR columnist Daniel Schorr and beloved leading man Paul Newman (?). I forget who stated this regarding Nixon’s list, but if a man has to make a list of his enemies he has too many enemies. Rev Martin L King was also skeptical about Nixon’s intentions regarding his politics, him telling a Nixon biographer, “If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America.” MLK passing judgment. Consider that for a brief moment.

I did some honest research before tackling this installment. Since I wasn’t around when Watergate went down, I bounced around from site to site to get the whole picture. And boy, that picture was drawn by dozens of artists on retainer. Way too many details. So much so that when I unravelled the matter, I still felt there was more to the story. I even asked a few co-workers about the scandal who were around when I wasn’t.

For the uninformed (read: me) back during election year 1974, when Nixon was pursuing a second term, he and his cronies wanted to dig up some dirt on his possible rivals come November. The DNC was being held at the Watergate Hotel, so via espionage and burglary five thieves busted into the complex with the aim to wiretap the place so the committee to re-elect Nixon could get some straight dope from those on his Enemies List. They were caught red-handed, hired by the goons in Nixon’s inner circle. Understanding the dire fix he was in, definite impeachment looming large, Nixon had to decide to either sh*t or get off the pot. He got off the pot, resigned and took flight.

My older co-workers agreed, “Yes. That was pretty much it.”

Watergate was a warning beacon and/or a cautionary tale of when the President’s right to keeping certain things private—under wraps—could turn rotten, or at least misguided. Despite my limited understanding of Nixon’s rise and fall, I could not but help to view him as a tragic figure. I’m talking his foibles, not how he conducted business. I mean, one did inform the other, but keeping it all bottled up was Nixon’s ultimate downfall. Which is sad. He was probably the most qualified person to be President than any other in the 20th Century. He served in the Navy, becoming a decorated lieutenant post-Pearl Harbor (despite being a birthright Quaker, who do not condone violence in any form). He had a sterling record as a California congressman and later in senate (despite his very far right leanings, even for the 1950s). He was Ike’s VP. Despite losing to Kennedy in 1960 he handily won the 1968 election by a virtual electoral landslide (his 301 votes to Humphrey’s respectable 191 and Wallace’s paltry 46). In power he upgraded Medicaid and even helped the EPA get off the ground. And in 1972 only Nixon could go to China, literally.

All these political accomplishments, and still. Talking about his “Enemies List” opens a door into a very successful politician and a very insure man. With Watergate, his demons were laid bare, and they had been lurking al along. Recall MLK’s comment. As Prez, Nixon cut a presence. He had a unique voice and mannerisms that exuded assuredness. He truly mastered the “bully pulpit” stance that Teddy Roosevelt pioneered almost 80 years hence. Nixon was good at spin. He was also adept at denial. The man had many bones to pick from dinosaurs in his youth. After all I looked up on the man I got the impression that what got Nixon into politics—and he was very good at it—was not a desire to serve his country, but rather prove to all those “enemies” from his past, “See? How ya like me now?” That skein got unwound very fast in 1974. More like a tidal surge from a man’s tortured mind. It’s all very sad in hindsight.

And consider this: if Nixon did own up to his crimes? If he did apologize for his malfeasance? Would he seem sympathetic?

Like I said, it would be up to the court of public opinion to decide. Not an impeachment hearing…


The Story…

Not long after President Gerald Ford—perhaps the last just man in Sodom—pardoned Richard Nixon (Langella) for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal, the outrage bubbled up. What the hell really happened? Wiretapping? Where are those tapes? What’s on ’em? What are you hiding, Dick? The impeachment never happened, but there was still the court of public opinion to answer to. You were our elected leader and you abused your power! Understandably, Americans were very upset the President tried to hoodwink them, and instead of standing trial, Nixon resigned and fled. In the endgame there was no apology for the man’s misdeeds.

It was more like the reckoning. It was true Nixon never owned up to his alleged crimes; the man was proud and wanted his stained reputation cleansed. If not for the public’s satisfaction but for his. Nixon was firmly convinced he had served his country well, therefore deserving a modicum of respect. An opportunity to explain to America his side of the story may improve his image, which had been tarnished for far too long. Yes, Watergate was a huge mess, but even the lowest of the low is entitled to at least one second chance. Right?

Enter David Frost (Sheen). A ribald TV personality from the UK, Frost’s equally at home emceeing game shows as he was conducting talk show interviews. A clown, for lack of a better term. Fluff was his medium, aided well with having a nose for the next hot property that came down the pike. Ever opportunistic, Frost hatched the idea that would make him a legit (or at least respectable) TV journalist. He watched Nixon’s resignation on the tube and had a corker of an idea: sit down with the disgraced former President and interview him. Get the scoop on all that went down leading up to Watergate. The ratings would be huge! As well as a chance for Frost to crack America.

It took a few years, but Nixon caught wind of this upstart young Brit’s plan to bring the true Nixon to the masses. Nixon figured Frost as an easy mark, a lightweight, and in front of the camera he could spin whatever came to his mind while this whippersnapper could just sit still, cringe and experience Nixon The Man in full force! The former president could explain away everything while this limey tot would have to just sit still and quiver whilst being broadcasted to millions of Americans. To Nixon this would be the best of both worlds: speak his peace and demonstrate the authority that his f*cking former subjects refused to respect.

Such scheming didn’t account for two things: Frost’s artless on air ambition, and Nixon’s failure to understand he’s not President anymore.

We’re going live in three, two, one…


The Review…

Ron Howard is no stranger to historical fiction. I examined his biopic Cinderella Man here, much to my delight. His Apollo 13 was a real crowd pleaser. His Far And Away not so much, but at least we got a history lesson on how the Howard family set down roots in America. A Beautiful Mind won a (dubious) Best Picture Oscar, and introduced most of us to the almost forgotten mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. He explained away better than anyone the intractable Moby-Dick by recounting the maritime exploits that inspired the novel with In The Heart Of The Sea. Howard even directed a pair of documentaries regarding the Beatles and Jay-Z (read that again). Safe to say the guy knows his stuff and has his thesis on its way to the AFI. Probably already there, with a program at the ready in Howard Film Studies.

After watching many, many of his films I believe I understand Howard’s appeal. Ron spent so much of the time in his youth starring on TV shows (EG: from Andy Griffith to Happy Days) that how a studio works to create a solid investment—hopefully a profitable one—there must be an efficient formula to get the job done. Such an ethos plays out in practice with his films. His movies are of middlebrow entertainment, aided by keen scenarists, solid actors and overall an engaging story. Not a lot of flash and splash (in fact, most of his films that apply that kinda formula ain’t that good. Read: The DaVinci Code movies), and whatever style gets spun a decent amount of substance makes up for any of the usual Hollywood trappings. I’m thinking about those comments Scorsese made about the MCU not being cinema. Whatever that means, especially regarding Howard’s output. Movies are meant to entertain first, and maybe become examples of art. I figure Howard just wants to direct good stories. And if the films get an award? That’s nice, but awards are fleeting in showbiz, whereas maintaining a good reputation is priceless.

So the numero uno appeal of Howard’s movies is their efficiency. The pacing is always spot on. His best films are like playing Ocarina Of Time (“Hey! Listen!”): just challenging enough, yet still rewarding. Your curiosity never wavers about what the next scene’s gonna deliver. However…this gets formulaic. The best directors always play their hands. It’s their signature, but sometimes it works through innovation, not revolution. Spielberg has been getting away with faces of shock and awe ever since Duel. Namely, we expect a certain madness to our fave directors’ methods. I now claim that when some sort of twist invades a good directors’ manque, makes them think twice, proposes a challenge, ah! Something to be reckoned with! Gimme a shot. Like all good directors try. Hey, Coppola was the pinnacle of mediocre until he was handed the script to The Godfather films. I’d like to believe that Howard rose to a similar challenge with Frost/Nixon. Seemed that way to me.

So what was different this time out for Richie Cunningham? Frost/Nixon‘s script. It was based on a stage play. And it showed in the best way possible. Instead of applying the term “pacing” as the ace in my hole of movie watching, substitute “efficiency.” Howard’s overall directorial style is efficiency; can’t say that enough. On the whole precious little screen time was wasted filler; scenes there just to pad out the story for story’s sake, not a movie. Efficiency is the watchword of any play. There are no second takes in a play. There are no editors. Even the director is relegated to the wings when the curtains go up. This spirit carried over with Howard’s approach. Nixon had a solid docudrama feel, a Ken Burns type air, but not handling the subject matter. The direction. Every shot, every scene, told a very deliberate story. Deliberate, doubtless with Howard’s experience in TV. This was a movie about a series of TV interviews, correct? The connective tissue between Frost’s drive, Nixon’s “charm,” and the whole production is about seeing. There were plenty of shots regarding Clint Howard as the director of the interviews tugging at both Frost and Nixon equally, for production value. This whole affair was about image, not truth, justice and Nixon having his way. Nixon was compartmentalized like a proper three act play. Here and now. Take. Here and now. Take. And so forth. Sounds boring, but don’t confuse boredom with efficiency. With Howard at the helm, Nixon was—as jazz fans understand—in the pocket.

I found another key aspect of this play-to-film wonderfully curious. Howard is known to have a gentle but omnipresent hand on his cast members. Not like that, you pervs. The actor whisperer. Since Nixon was based on historical events, Howard managed to coax honesty out of a parcel of rogues who have in other films acted like…themselves, only here to frame the narrative. Not to crack wise, but to commit.

Here’s what I’m screaming: Rockwell, Platt and Sheen are loose cannons. It’s their stock in trade. Yet with Nixon they were playing muted versions of their schtick. We traded comedy for the gaunt sweat act. Rockwell’s characters are usually blowhards and Platt’s are as equally blustery. Sheen knows no bounds as a a fixture of quirky cinema (EG: Midnight In Paris, The Underworld movies as well as The Twilight Saga). The only quirks here with Nixon is playing shallow and way out of his league as Frost. This is our protagonist? The guy to get the job done? He’s as equally ineffective has Nixon to get a straight story. And yet it works. These ruffians are the cinematic version of the Classic muses: Practice (Frost), Memory (Reston) and Song (Platt). All foils to Tricky Dick, our Melpomene here. The muse of tragedy. And what’s more Classic than a three act drama after all? More on those three stooges later.

And calm down. There’s drunken ranting on the way. Relax. I’m a professional.

Speaking of Nixon’s portrayal, Langella is a character actor extraordinaire. If the guy can be Skeletor, he can be Nixon without any air of mimicry. Despite the truth that Nixon’s personality and mannerisms are so entrenched in America’s pop culture (read: like Star Trek, Star Wars and the purple stuff vs Sunny D debate) that him bringing something new to the screen is nothing short of engaging. Nixon was a human being, after all. Shoddy president, sure, but someone was demonized as he was back then was still a person with feelings like all of us. Thanks in part to the story’s timeline, Langella pulls of a Nixon that most Americans may have never seen: not being the president, at least not in body. Langella pulls off the charm and cagey personality of the late Nixon, as well as his well honed, lizard-like guardedness that became all he was post-Watergate. Langella’s Nixon oozes charisma and menace in equal measure, all the while ratcheting up the tension so the audience may get the to see him crack, given enough of Frost’s rope if at all. In sum, Langella was great at being Nixon the performer.

As Langella’s foil, Sheen did a remarkable job of both overcoming and mining from his fanciful roles that prepared him for assuming Frost’s mantel. Sheen’s Frost quickly learned he is way in over his head with his pet project. The man was so hungry for the interviews he’d do/pay almost anything just to prove he’s legit. No shocker that the very few had much faith in Frost, and for good reason. Sheen delivered his character as shallow as a carnival barker, which isn’t straying from the truth. On some level Sheen’s Frost had the media cache of Rod Roddy, and a lot of back alley dealing was done in order to fund his little, dangerous venture. Um, I’m no tele-journalist, and perhaps back in 1977 things worked differently, but would bush league Frost make a Faustian bargain just for ratings?

Yes. And he did. The watchword regarding Sheen’s performance as Frost is shallow. Almost plastic. Desperate and insecure, and his swinging lifestyle made by his journeywork had in no way prepared David for his Goliath. Sheen is codependent (he never seemed to be alone with himself), buoyed by a carefully etched personality and a wooden smile. Frost’s jet-setting image was a very obvious, but less engaging affront. It’s him trying to dress the part (K)but the imperious attitude that has served him so well in the past is flayed naked when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of hard journalism. Sheen’s Frost was shallow; he was entrenched in it. Always with the grin. I kept waiting for Frost to crack well before Nixon might. You noticed how his posture kept changing during the shoot? (K). Like Nixon, Frost was a human being, too. Sheen was awesome as a flawed crusader, but just as imperfect as his opponent was. We earned his sympathy, but it took until the end of the second act. Before that I wanted to slap Sheen silly enough to knock the Valence off his scalp.

Beware of things in threes. The third leg of this potential media blunder stood on Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan. Nixon’s lap dog. Bacon, as we all understand and six degrees notwithstanding, is probably the most successful, viable character actors over the past 50 years. And why not? What can’t he do (besides surviving the first Friday The 13th movie)?

Bacon’s Brennan is the Spock to Frost’s Kirk and Nixon’s McCoy. He’s the superego. The negotiator and the one member of the cast who truly understands the make or break nature of Frost’s project. That lap dog crack wasn’t to be snarky. (K) If the interviews make Nixon look bad it’ll make Brennan look very bad, the one who never abandoned the man the rest of an underserving country did. Loyalty, no matter how blind, and anything less would be turning his back on his country. And Nixon. Jeez Brennan is so dedicated a confidant to the former president he even sounds like Nixon. In politics as well as potboiler TV journalism Brennan can see the whole picture. The man has a great deal invested in not only serving Nixon, but protecting an image.

Bacon is stern, passionate and supposedly painted as an antagonist. His Jack doesn’t really come across that way. There’s another major reason why Bacon has been such an in demand character actor for decades. He’s very versatile. Although his Jack a dedicated officer, he’s conflicted. Some other infected his Commander In Chief into impropriety. Bacon plays Brennan not as some blind patriot, but hopes the interviews go well, exonerate Nixon and reassure Jack that he wasn’t backing a losing horse well after the race ended. Bacon’s careful image is so practiced and polished that if its stretched too far it’ll break. The creeping stress and strain Bacon exudes is chaffing against his kind and professional appearance. Overall watching Bacon squirm and sigh and sometimes crack a smile displays the very best of his versatility. If you doubt this, recall his performances in Tremors, Footloose, Stir Of Echoes and/or Diner. Greatest hits here with Jack Brennan. He was the fulcrum upon which two uber-egos are teetering.

Okay, enough man crushes. Since Nixon was ostensibly based on a play there are only small roles, never small actors. The trio of Frost’s coterie/brain trust that was Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen provided a sturdy backbone to keep time on task, not fluffing Frost’s jittery ego. Sure, their his entourage, but not in it for fortune and elbow-rubbing. There’s a mission here, which is proudly introduced by Sam Rockwell’s Reston. He’s a holdover from the self-righteous crusading against The Man yippie, cynical and bitter. I love it when Rockwell gets to be Rockwell. His style is almost always pleasantly unhinged that comes across natural. He’s the kind of character actor that thrives on assuming a role that is not outside his schtick. If you’ve ever seen The Way, Way BackSeven Psychopaths,or Matchstick Men (all covered here, duh) then you know what I mean. His part kinda gets the ball rolling if you consider it.

Oliver Platt is famous for his onscreen prattle, and with Nixon it’s no different. The mouth that walks like a man. He may be considered comic relief, but under the circumstances of Frost’s baby he’s not intentionally funny. His bluster and “what the hell are we doing here, man?” You ever seen Apocalypse Now, with Dennis Hopper as the photojournalist? Platt was like that, only less manic. His was more like his gorge was always on the way to being buoyant, and it took Rockwell and especially Macfadyen to reign him in.

And speaking of Macfadyen—the aide de camp—his icy logic keeps Frost in check (there’s a kind of mechanics at work here with Nixon, don’t you think). His Burt is the antithesis of Jack. Where Brennan was active, trying to be “the man behind the man,” Birt was the man behind the curtain. Always reigning in Frost’s frustrations and anxieties. Keep the eyes on the prize. Birt reminded me of Mr Spock, and that’s a complement. Someone had to keep Frost out of the clouds. Truth be told Macfadyen was more like Mr Data, telling it like it is, and with a conviction so stern you could not but help to listen to him when he was on screen. Macfadyen was the tonic that the rest of the cast needed, as did we. Escape the silly flights of fancy and get back to work, people!

So that’s the cast. Like I said, Nixon was based on a stage play, so there were no small roles. Solid acting all around. Sounds like I have no gripes. Psych!

The technical aspect of Nixon was a bit dodgy. The air of crusading got a bit repetitive and tiring. A lot of spinning wheels. It felt like after a while we knew the film’s outcome, but not in the way Howard’s Apollo 13 did. We know the crew of the Odyssey REDACTEDNixon got very busy at times. The bottom end of the second act got rather frenetic, our intrepid rubes trying to get their sh*t together after the early interviews turned into Nixon spin doctoring. Call this nervous tension. If all of these histrionics are designed to make us all uneasy, only to make the final reveal all the more rewarding, then the job got done. If only in a cheaped fashion. It’s a minor carp, but it still stuck at me. Talk about a literal media circus.

The key scene in the entire movie may be the best, but also may have been totally fictionalized. Nixon as I repeat was based on a stage play of the same name, and as with plays there’s no room for “filler.” However with the shrewd and efficient Howard at the helm, he know how to bring his audience back down to Earth.  By this I mean he permits his oft wizened protagonists [EG: Jim Lovell, John Nash, The Grinch (no fooling here), etc] a small window of opportunity/redemption to turn things around in their favor. This tactic plays out in what I’ll call the “drunk dial” scene. If this was a true story, it was a vital foreshadowing of the final interview. If Howard made it all up…it would still be cool.

We’ve been led across an hour and 45 minutes of post political posturing and way too many 70’s era fashions. There better be a glitch in the Matrix if we’re gonna wrap up little slice of while we’re still young. We’ve learned the stakes grow ever hight as one interview becomes another interview. We still don’t truly understand what the endgame is. Frost seeking legitimacy or Nixon demanding redemption? Until the call.

I won’t give it away. The crux of the whole story resting a single scene and I’m gonna blow the load? That’s worse than spoiling. That’s just a dick move (no pun intended).

Keeping it simple: Frost gets to passively bleed a tipsy Dick dry before their last on air day together. That’s it, that’s all and pay attention when that scene arrives. Howard efficiency at its best. And it sure would’ve been a cool story if it ever was.

I guess I should wrap up now. I’ve been longwinded but surgical in this week’s installment. The subject matter demanded it. There were no easy answers from Nixon. I think that one message I could’ve walked away with it’s always very hard to have that talk with the man in the mirror. The guy that knows everything. Every little detail, speck, foible and good deed in the reflection.

Sure beats being grilled in a stranger’s house by some limey playboy with a perm.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, indeed. Although Nixon was dense as well as cluttered in equal doses, Howard’s trademark efficient direction made for a very absorbing historical. Funny thing though is it still had that tightness and intimacy that comes with a play. Guess I’ve watched My Dinner With Andre once too often. Inconceivable!


The Stray Observations…

  • Sheen has perfect, distracting hair.
  • “You and Vidal Sassoon.”
  • Nice metaphor with The Great Escape there.
  • “I got six.”
  • Does Kevin Bacon ever age?
  • “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they’re being taped.”
  • (K) Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Rockwell has a good shaggy hippie look going on, because a decade after the Summer Of Love is what he looks like.
  • “Can I play Deep Crack?”
  • Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.
  • “Those are real Bunnies?”
  • Hey, Platt does a good Nixon. Maybe better than Langella.
  • “No holds barred.”

The Kudos…

And so concludes our series of pulverizing biopics and fictional histories here at RIORI. I never knew how much of you in the blogosphere were so interested in such movies. The hits have been crazy. Thanks. Guess I should try this again sometime. Perhaps with a different genre. We’ll see.

Thanks again for tuning in and all the likes. We should do this more often. 🙂


The Next Time…

And now for something completely different. It’s time to bone up on some classic animated comedy for the New Century. It’s the Looney Tunes: Back In Action! Catch it, Doc!