It is no wonder that the DVD I picked up this week to watch was Frost/Nixon. So much that is current and playing on one’s mind these days is about despots, political admissions or the lack of, and the general miasma of that age-old issue: abuse of power. Only recently we watched a bloated Muammar al-Gaddafi ranting about how he has no ‘place’ to resign from and all he has is his gun. That piece of un-statesmanlike posturing forced even his traditional Western allies to give press briefings about how dangerous it’s all suddenly become in Libya when just last year Senator Clinton was sending Gaddafi missives about how much regard the Obama government had for him and his country.
Frost/Nixon is a powerful yet curious film. Powerful because of the riveting performances and cracking screenplay, which make the audience believe they are present in the Smith house during that event some 35 years ago which redefined political corruption and its exposé, or as one of the protagonists describes it, “… a lasting legacy that every political scam after this event would have the suffix ‘gate’ attached to it”. It’s curious as it seems to be set in an age of innocence. A conservative, tough, man’s man of a president abuses/misuses his power, gets caught out, resigns, but remains smug and confident in his public posturing as the long-suffering, right-man-at-the-wrong-time patriarch. Like the mythical Goliath, he buckles however, when he meets his David in the ring, which almost makes the ‘good’ guys worry that his bluster will prevail.
The makings of a true Hollywood epic, and it took a Ron Howard, better known for his less than extraordinary film version of Da Vinci Code, to see the potential of this epoch-making interview in cinematic terms three decades after the event. I haven’t seen the original interview, and I don’t even want to. I want to stay with the belief that what the film showed could actually happen. That it wasn’t a staged symphonic progression from the allegro of the first couple of questions which Nixon dodged with ease, to the adagio of his responses to questions on Russia, China and his family, to the escalated, deafening presto of the Watergate section of the interview, down to the silence which preceded and followed the words a defeated Nixon finally uttered, “I let the American people down.” I want to believe in the confessional that the collarless Frost provided Nixon with. I want to believe that Nixon too wanted to tell the truth. I want to believe in the drama of it, which gives it its cinematic raison d’être.
It is the desperate sort of belief one had in those early days of private Indian news channels, that one of these days one of our own ‘white knights’ on the TV screen could manage the same, say, with a Narendra Modi in a moment of ‘cascading candour’, as Frost describes it to waiting reporters. But things are different now. Unlike Nixon, who was uncomfortable with the new medium of TV when he sparred with Frost, or even Modi who got annoyed with Rajdeep Sardesai in the interview during the Gujarat riots, political notables more recently implicated in cases of corruption or other criminal circumstances have learnt how to ‘work’ the media. These are the days of the well-established nexus between the politician and the news anchor; no longer is the latter a white knight or the former in a confessional.
So what is that medium that could get an admission of guilt out of our political criminals, one that doesn’t intimidate or put one on the defensive, but seduces us with a sense of community while making us feel anonymous, precisely what the TV might have been to Nixon in the days when tough-talking political analysts wrote only for newspapers. I’d wager that it would have to be social media networking, a medium little understood by the political community barring the younger lot. Despite this lack of a sense of how to use it advantageously, there is a growing feeling that it ought to be harnessed for political mileage. Shashi Tharoor tried his hand at it; look where it landed him. Gone are the days of interviews and inquisitions.
It’s increasingly possible to imagine a scene where a Modi, Kalmadi, Mayawati or Raja were to sit in the privacy and security of his/her own turf, in an armchair with a glass of the preferred beverage by the side, log on, and, in an epiphany, tweet a confession. Of course, they could always click the Undo Tweet button immediately afterwards, but why go there anyway!
Arpita Das is Publisher, Yoda Press The views expressed by the author are personal