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On Peter Morgan

In the wake of the mindless Quantum Of Solace, a new
screenwriter tackles the next Bond film.

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By Ian Dunross
December 21, 2009
For clarity, all book titles are displayed in small caps (Casino Royale), and short stories are shown in quotes and capitalized accordingly ("Quantum of Solace"). Film titles, on the other hand, are italicized and shown with the capitalization used by the filmmakers (Quantum Of Solace).
This essay contains spoilers.

Introduction: thoughts on the press release


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Screenwriter Peter
Morgan

It's been all quiet on the Bondian front, especially since Quantum Of Solace and its inanity faded from the theaters and from our minds. Unfortunately, this refreshing lull was broken in early June 2009, when Eon Productions, guardians of the Bondian film franchise, revealed the first stirrings of pre-production for the next entry in the series. It was not, however, news concerning the casting of the Bond girls, or the locations where explosions will occur; rather, a press release announced the new screenwriter to join the writing team, a man who's gotten some Oscar notoriety lately: Peter Morgan. Yes, that Peter Morgan. (Note: There is no Peter Morgan other than the one tapped to meddle with the Bond screenplay, but I've seen a lot of writers use that technique, and I've always wanted to give it a try.)

Morgan (whose name means “son of the organist at the hockey arena”) will be joining Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, the screenwriting duo responsible for much of the stupidity in the last four Bond films. Conspicuously missing from the roster is Paul Haggis. Haggis, as you no doubt recall, is a proud member of the Hollywood Leftist Elite (he gave a brief ode to Brecht in his Oscar-acceptance speech for Crash1) and a colossally overrated screenwriter/director who helped shape the kitschy reboot of Casino Royale and the incoherent story of Quantum Of Solace. I suspect that his hack work for Solace was reason enough not to be invited back by the producers.2 The only other explanation: Mr. Haggis was unable to leave his reading chair, so immersed was he in the works of Noam Chomsky and Saul Alinsky—that and, in all likelihood, he didn't have the energy to change out of his stained bathrobe.

Not surprisingly, the fawning press release places Morgan on a pedestal:

Peter Morgan is the award-winning writer of such films as The Last King of Scotland, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, which was based on his play. He has also scripted the upcoming The Special Relationship for HBO and Hereafter for DreamWorks. He will turn his attention to Bond 23 on completion of these duties. (“Bond 23 Writers Confirmed”)

And the accolade goes on and on—Peter Morgan, along with Purvis and Wade, each just short of canonization, although as a PR stunt, this declaration of a league of extraordinary screenwriters is fairly futile. These chaps aren't exactly household names, and using them as a selling point for the next Bond film is about as effective as, say, announcing that my gardener would water the plants on one of the sets. Still, Morgan's record is impressive—or is it? One gathers that it's not necessarily a surefire guarantee that this Peter Morgan could deliver the goods for the next Bond film; for a glance at his repertoire reveals some questionable efforts. To start with, the producers forgot to mention that Morgan was also responsible for writing the very forgettable The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

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Kerry Washington, Forest Whitaker, and
James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland.

The Last King of Scotland (2006), on the other hand, was laughably memorable for presenting Idi Amin as a large, slobbering, non-threatening dictator in various historical inaccuracies. His wife, Kay Amin, became pregnant from her adulterous affair with Dr. Mbalu Mukasa, not by the fictional Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Moreover, unlike in the film, Kay died during a failed abortion operation by Mukasa, who consequently committed suicide. Bob Astles, upon whom the Nicholas Garrigan character is based, suggested that it was Mukasa who mutilated her cadaver (not Amin, as in the film) and attempted to hide it. Also, Amin never had a son named Campbell.

Oddly, the film suggests that the Entebbe hostages were allowed to leave based on whether or not they were Israeli; in reality, the decision was based on whether a hostage had Jewish heritage (indeed, hostages who were forced to remain included Jews from France). In addition, despite the blurb at the beginning of the film, three hostages died during Operation Entebbe. A fourth hostage, 75-year old Dora Bloch, was killed by Ugandan officers in a hospital.

No amount of critical acclaim will erase the memory of Morgan's work on bizarre films such as Madame Sousatzka (1988) and Shalom Joan Collins (1989); but we can at least minimize the existential pain with the fact that he wrote the screenplay for the highly entertaining musical The Queen (2006), a story about HM Queen Elizabeth II's ability to talk to a Red Deer stag. I understand that Tony Blair is also in the film, depicted with the magical ability to talk to the queen ant of an ant colony in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

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Special Agent Oso: inspiration
for Peter Morgan?

As for the next Bond film, newly found notes from the initial script meeting (and I am not making this up) reveal that Morgan's vision of 007 would feature a small yellow panda bear in a black vest riding atop a french talking train. Unfortunately, producer Barbara Broccoli interrupted Morgan's creative momentum when she explained that he had inadvertently described Special Agent Oso, a Playhouse Disney cartoon series for toddlers.

A dejected Morgan retreated to his home in Vienna, Austria and began staring at the wall, falling deeper into depression, especially after realizing that whatever screenplay he develops will be used as the basis to transmit images of Daniel Craig onto the big screen. He spent time in a meditation chamber high in the Alps to cleanse his mind, but no amount of therapy could erase the repulsiveness of Craig's Flashbacks of a Fool (2008).

Eventually, he did recover (helped along by the realization that a fat paycheck was on the horizon), just as Purvis and Wade began tackling the first draft with fresh stupid ideas to degrade the series. Indeed, Morgan arrives at a disturbing time in the franchise: it seems the Daniel Craig tenure had reached its zenith; for no sooner had Quantum Of Solace reached theaters in November 2008 than it began to fade from everyone's memory. The abysmal reviews poured on and on, and the public was perplexed by the film itself. It was an odd stew, featuring an onslaught of action scenes, an incomprehensible plot, and blatant emulation of the Bourne films (in terms of narrative style and editing), and inexplicably emphasized effeminate villains, a shortage of babes, and a gay-friendly Bond. . . it's that kind of thing.3

The final forgetting of the film occurred just one week after its release, when everyone turned their attention to the vampire love story Twilight(2008) and to its hot young stars—in a sudden flash, Quantum Of Solace and Daniel Craig and his glorious press releases were booted off the lighted stage of pop culture. Therefore, with Peter Morgan on board, questions arise: what will he bring to the new Bond film? Can we glean any clues from his recent effort, Frost/Nixon? I doubt it, but let us now turn to that aimless, comical film to grasp his style even further.

Frost/Nixon: a tale of two babblers


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Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as
wax figures in Frost/Nixon.

Despite what many action fans are thinking, Frost/Nixon (2008) is not about a riveting hand-to-hand combat between British media personality David Frost and infamous American President Richard M. Nixon. Nor is it a dramatization of a beer-drinking contest between the two figures in a pub in Tonawanda, New York. Such assumptions are understandable; for the title's forward slash suggests a division, or a contest of strength, between the foppish media guy and the ex-president.

Of course, others are saying that the forward slash is necessary; that it emphasizes the strong connection between the two characters and their conflict during a series of interviews that occurred in 1977. If so, then I'd say that the glorious Mr. Morgan was quite lazy to spell out Frost versus Nixon, or Frost Battles Nixon, or the simpler Frost and Nixon. Compare, for example, Nietzsche's polemic essay on Wagner, titled Nietzsche contra Wagner—at least the German philosopher had the discipline to write contra and never copped-out with a forward slash.

All this only underscores that the title Frost/Nixon is distracting, even beguiling, forcing us to draw assumptions about the subject of this overblown film by the overrated Ron Howard. For example, could Frost/Nixon represent the file path in a government database for directories called “Frost” and “Nixon”? Or is the title referring to the possibility of Nixon's membership at the Jack Frost National Golf Club? Moreover, why was the forward slash chosen over, say, the pound (#) character or the asterisk (*) character? And why, for that matter, does “Frost” appear before “Nixon”? Is there any reason why the film couldn't be titled Nixon/Frost? Personally, I thought the title alluded to the discovery of a Robert Frost poem about President Nixon. This is, of course, incorrect. Research reveals that the great poet died in 1963 and, unless he was capable of paranormal activity, was unavailable to write about the Nixon presidency or its aftermath.

The title, we must admit, offers a strange case in the usage of the forward slash. And therein lies the first problem with this film: the unimaginative title with its curious forward slash is an extremely stupid idea. The rest of the problem becomes apparent not long after the film begins; namely, we never reach a fascinating reason why the interviews between Frost and Nixon needed to be dramatized at all.

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A scene from the the Broadway show. For
the film, the producers used the original
leads.

Morgan's screenplay, which he adapted from his Broadway play, provides the underlying low-key narrative. The film plods as much as it languishes. Nothing truly happens; the dynamics stay on one level. We are, so we're expected to believe, witnessing the behind-the-scenes of how the interviews were arranged. The networks aren't interested, the financing is flaky, and Michael Sheen (as Frost) attempts to keep a straight face whenever Frank Langella appears as Nixon. Meanwhile, the pressure is building for Frost to do something significant for his career in that summer of 1977—the golden days of disco, I might add, and “I'm Your Boogie Man” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band dominated the charts, just as Hamilton Jordan and Walter Mondale could be seen joyfully bumping their hips to the pulsing tune. Indeed, those in positions of power bowed to the glorious gods of disco, and it was only a matter of time when Cyrus Vance and Leonid Brezhnev imitated the falsetto voices of the Bee Gees on the South Lawn of the White House.

Not true, of course. There are no known historical documents that reveal Brezhnev and Cyrus Vance could sing in falsetto. But the production design and costumes of Frost/Nixon do provide an admirable recreation of the kitsch facade of 1970s culture—the polyester suits, the wide lapels, the brown corduroy sports coats. This is not enough, however, to keep our minds off the lackluster characters. While negotiations with the Nixon camp unfold, Frost desperately clings to a tepid affair with a leggy new girl (Rebecca Hall), an unnecessary character introduced for decorative purpose. This David Frost is something of an international party animal, devouring the jet-set lifestyle, and who obviously thinks so little of his career that he allows Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell to be his research assistants.

It’s only near the climax, when Frost realizes he needs to take the interview seriously, that his clash with Nixon gains intensity. It's also near the end when Langella's unintentionally camp performance reaches its apex: the camera zooms into his mug when he justifies his power abuse by proclaiming “When the President does it, it's not illegal.” The delivery is laughable, and what should have been the highpoint in the film comes off as a ludicrous moment.

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Frank Langella as the blood-sucking
insomniac in Dracula (1979).

Previously, he mumbles like a disturbed method actor; he schemes like a sleazy car salesman. Langella's performance made me nostalgic for Rich Little's impersonation of Nixon. The impressionist was a marble effigy of dignity compared to the very grating Frank Langella. Thanks to his portrayal of the caped one in the 1979 Dracula, he reminds us of the Count Chocula cereal character, only with Nixon's hair. Moreover, he conveys very little of the veneer of a broken man. When he's contacted by Frost for the interview, he jumps at it without strong motivation. Is it because, in the act of speaking out, this Nixon believes he'll somehow redeem himself in the eyes of the public? Sad to say, we never learn; but his eagerness to receive the $600,000 fee suggests a brash grab for some easy green. Other than that, we see a Nixon condemned to a life of boredom, of endless days of playing golf by the sea—not exactly Dante's inferno, although his daily attire of white polyester golf pants is damnation enough for any man.

Sheen's Frost, on the other hand, is practically a negligible presence. He's overshadowed by Nixon during their confrontations. In the set up for the interviews, apart from the fund raising, he's hardly involved in the process. His one true mark in the film is his transformation into a manipulative bastard: he becomes increasingly desperate in the interviews and, with added pressure from his camp, realizes he'll need to get Nixon to break into a confession of sorts if he wants to salvage his fading glow in television. But this aspect of the character is not enough to override his weak presence, and Sheen's performance never reinforces the dichotomy needed at the center of the Nixon-Frost duality.

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Frank Langella and Ron Howard
discuss a plot point on set.

The final imagery in the film: Nixon, alone on the patio of his San Clemente home, staring at the sea. The constant ebb and flow of the waves, the expanse of the sea, all point to the embattled Nixon's solitude and to the boredom—the terrible dailiness—in his exile. It's a nice touch to the pretentiousness of the film, to its blatant self-assertion that it's a sophisticated piece. Director Opie, by way of the Morgan script, has no need for subtly. Frost/Nixon is the declaration of great, literate film-making. “Get it, get it?” both Howard and Morgan seem to say, nudging us to enlightenment. “This is an intelligent film. Look at the stunning imagery: the sea is symbolic of Nixon's emptiness!” Unbeknownst to them, the imagery they're boasting is an apt metaphor for the entire movie—a lethargic sea of pointless chatter, monotonous, bland, and empty.

Notes

1 In his speech during the 2006 Oscar ceremony, Paul Haggis revealed his Marxist leanings when he quoted the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, babbling, “Art is not a mirror held up to society, it is a hammer by which to shape it.” In other words, the Shakespearean approach of art holding up a mirror to nature is irrelevant today and must be replaced by a Brechtian hammer. Haggis, then, adheres to the same Marxist principles as Bertolt Brecht, who after a stint in Hollywood, returned to East Berlin at the height of the Cold War to manage a theatre company and yearn for a communist utopia.
2 For an account of the messy screenplay development for Quantum Of Solace, refer to my essay “Consider the Chaos.”
3 For a complete analysis of Quantum Of Solace, refer to my essay “A Travesty of Bond.”

List of Illustrations

“Screenplay.” Personal graphic by author. 14 Dec. 2009.
“Screenwriter Peter Morgan.” Online Photograph. The Film Stage. 16 Nov. 2009
<http://thefilmstage.com/2009/06/12/peter-morgan-attached-to-co-write-new-bond-film/>.
“Scene from The Last King of Scotland.” Online Photograph. allmoviephoto.com. 19 Nov. 2009
<http://www.allmoviephoto.com/photo/2006_the_last_king_of_scotland_001.html>.
“Special Agent Oso.” Online Image. Aimation Magazine. 4 Dec. 2009
<http://www.animationmagazine.net/article/9619>.
“The Frost/Nixon Costumes.” Online Photograph. Jason in Hollywood. 11 August 2009
<http://jasoninhollywood.blogspot.com/2009/04/movie-costumes-and-props-on-display-at_21.html>.
“Scene from the Frost/Nixon Broadway show.” Online Photograph. Boston.com. 20 Dec. 2009
<http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2008/12/07/frostsheen/>.
“Frank Langella as Dracula.” Online Photo. Moving Picture Blog.15 August 2009
<http://movingpictureblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/from-frostnixon-to-underworld-rise-of.html>.
“Frank Langella and Ron Howard.” Online Photo. Mother Jones.10 August 2009
<http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2009/01/frostnixon>.

Works Cited

“Bond 23 Writers Confirmed.” MI6. 11 June 2009   17 Nov. 2009
<http://mi6.co.uk/sections/articles/bond_23_confirmed_writers.php3?t=&s=main&id=02274>.
Frost/Nixon. Dir. Ron Howard. Perf. Frank Langella, Michael Sheen.
2008. Blu-ray Disc. Universal Pictures, 2009.

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