[4 December 2008]
It says something about the fading days of the George W. Bush presidency—a more surreal time in the nation’s history would be difficult to conjure—that it takes a film about one of the stranger late chapters of the Watergate story to give us a sense of historical perspective. In Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s perfectly palatable film of Peter Morgan’s Broadway drama about David Frost’s historic 1977 interview with ex-president Richard Nixon, the parallels to our current times are striking. From imperial executive overreach to paranoid defensiveness, cartoon-skewed media image, and a scorched-earth attitude towards enemies (real and imagined), the end of the Nixon and Bush II eras have more in common than is comfortable for the average American liberal to comprehend.
A great part of that difference is Watergate. Whereas the nation of the 1970s was ready to draw and quarter their president in the court of public opinion (the ubiquitous airings of Congressional investigations like televised payback), the America of today seems perfectly willing to allow Bush II to ride off to Crawford, unmolested by legislative inquisitors. The differing attitudes toward how people view the end of an unpopular two-term conservative who mistook the presidency for a monarchy can easily be explained by character. The two men may have had similar effects on the office and the nation, but they couldn’t have been more different on a personal level. Nixon sweated and cursed over the idea that the nation’s liberal elite were looking down on him and his supporters (a dark and furious fixation that seethes out of the deposed president in Frost/Nixon); Bush II cracked open a nonalcoholic beer and blithely stuck to his guns.
This year has already brought us Oliver Stone’s W, a sympathetic portrait of benign malevolence that further shrunk in stature a man who already seems to have disappeared from the landscape. For all that film’s faults, it at least understood the ultimate smallness of its subject. Nixon may have been mercilessly parodied over the years, but if anything all those caricatures almost exaggerated his place in history. When Stone tackled Nixon, he brought in Anthony Hopkins, while W stars Josh Brolin (an astounding actor, possibly even Hopkins’ superior, but nobody’s icon). The film’s air of bouncy satire sits easily on its subject; even if the result is rarely as on-target as intended, the effect is nevertheless one of diminishment. When Bush II stands on that aircraft carrier deck announcing ‘Mission accomplished’, he seems a chuckling fool; when Frost/Nixon shows Nixon departing the White House in disgrace, flinging his arms up in defiance, he’s like a monarch departing for exile in a distant land.
As Nixon, Frank Langella brings a wily intelligence to his portrayal of a man so caricatured by decades of political satire that he had almost ceased to be real. His portrayal is not the note-perfect imitation of its subject that Brolin, with his studious mannerisms, was able to capture. On stage, Langella was a stooped clown, muffling and slowing his enunciation while still booming out the words in a manner that the real Richard Nixon never seemed to. When you watch video of Nixon, it becomes clear how distorted the man’s image has become, his voice more direct and clear than we’re used to hearing with his imitators and the eyes piercingly intelligent; the sweaty upper lip, though, that’s a constant. On screen, however, Langella plays more subtle notes, finding the easy humor and vulnerability in one of American history’s greatest villains. It’s a tough act to pull off, given that Nixon never had the padding of boyish charm and monied self-confidence that help buoy Bush in W; his needs are all right there on the surface.
Langella’s Nixon probably occupies less screen time than his counterpart, the journalist David Frost, but his presence hangs over the entire film. Faithfully adapted by the playwright himself and opened up from its rather spare stage setting only modestly (Howard smartly stays out of the way, refusing to overdirect a crackling screenplay that doesn’t need the help), Frost/Nixon tracks the real story of how Frost, a jet-setting TV show host looking to bolster his journalistic credentials, snagged a series of lengthy interviews with Nixon in his post-Watergate years. The interviews, in which Frost—played by an excellent Michael Sheen as a blow-dried con artist specializing in vapid grins and slightly dazed expressions—is bolstered by a team of experienced researchers, appear a train wreck at first.
The thinly stretched Frost is deftly outmaneuvered time after time by a crafty Nixon trying to burnish his legacy, collect an easy paycheck (the frank bartering for money here packs a sting, even for the most cynical audience members), and escape any further opprobrium for his role in Watergate. This all to the fury and frustration of his researchers, one of whom, James Reston (Sam Rockwell), is looking in essence for a televised conviction of a man he believes left the country mired in doubt and self-recrimination. It’s not hard to buy into Reston’s view of Nixon as vampire, the man who sucks America dry and seems impossible to knock off. That is, until a crack appears in Nixon’s armor, and Frost—who suddenly appears just as cagey as the man he’s facing—goes in for the stake-in-the-heart kill.
Much of Frost/Nixon is played like a blood match, with both principals retiring to their corners, where their seconds cajole and harangue them to get back out there and take care of business. It’s all as high stakes as any of the fights in Howard’s Cinderella Man. On one side is Frost, hemorrhaging money and seemingly committing career suicide while his subject runs out the clock by blathering away in an uninterruptible litany of resume padding. On the other is Nixon, ducking and weaving like a master, Frost’s soft jabs glancing off his well-hated hide. It’s just an interview, but everything is at stake.
Clearly, it was ultimately still just an interview, no matter how revelatory. Morgan’s screenplay makes Frost/Nixon the satisfying political drama it is not by exaggerating the importance of the event at its center (the usual tactic of historical film), but by using it as a convenient window into the mind of its subject. While Sheen probably makes off with the better performance, his Frost is a more unknowable subject, just another amiable face who’s always reassuring everybody how great they are while darting out of unfinished meetings. As frequently lacking in verisimilitude it might be, Langella’s Nixon is the real thing. The cunning evasions and pointed queries, the stifling insecurity battling with a veteran’s confidence, and the refusal to believe that his time in the spotlight was truly over; this is the Nixon of history.