Watergate is the only crisis that ever got me down… And I know I will never live to see the vindication.
— Pat Nixon, in Julie Nixon, Eisenhower (1986)
The creepiest, most jarring and perversely appropriate aspect of Frost/Nixon is the casting of Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon. She has precious few minutes on screen, but the fact that McCormack remains most famous for her very-scary-girl role in The Bad Seed only underlines the role Pat plays here — a ghostly, taut-faced, plainly pained reminder of how very wrong the Nixon presidency went. She also intimates the ways that media create and reshape history and memory, their construction of truths that are always-already receding.
All that said, Pat Nixon is singular in Ron Howard’s film, which is less interested in digging into all this mess than in cleaning it up. The plot, such as it is, follows the seeming collision course charted by Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) , as both sought to recapture former glories, recolor their professional histories, or — at least — regain a pretense of control over their media images. That both settled on television as the means to their very different recuperations is telling and frankly, extremely interesting. Though Nixon’s bad experiences with the medium are notorious (from the sweaty debate of 1960 to the awkward “Sock it to me” on Laugh-In in 1968), he nonetheless works it out with his handlers here, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), imagining that the appearance with Frost will allow him to retell the case, proclaim his innocence, and generate an archiveable legacy that might extend beyond the odious Oval Office tapes. As his Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) puts it, Frost is so weak an adversary (all press, even celebrity versions, are enemies for the Nixon camp) Frost will be easy. “It’ll be a big wet kiss,” he promises, because the interviewer will “pitch puffballs all night long.”
The film paints Frost as having a similar, if less momentous, problem, that he has lost his erstwhile pop-cultural clout (he’s currently hosting the proto-reality show Great Escapes in Australia, a sign of his exile and his tremendous desire to flee that purgatory and return to prominence and something like industry “respect”). He finances the interviews himself, with money cobbled together from private donors and then self-syndicates because no U.S. network will buy them, a process the film renders in standard montagey form, so as to suggest the difficulty but not spend too much time on the politics of television, obviously based on bottom lines but also, in news bureaus, considering future access and burned bridges. When at last Frost attains cash, crew, and subject, the film descends into an even less compelling back-and-forth between the teams, with the winner ostensibly holding sway over history, reality, and public opinion, here all amounting to the same thing.
The opponents are sketched briefly as they approach one another. ABC reporter Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) notes that those citizens frustrated by the pardon found an unlikely hero in the seemingly hapless Frost, who had never even voted, but “understood television.” Frost’s apparent good-guyness is bolstered when he meets the lovely Caroline (Rebecca Hall) on the flight to California. Though comments are made repeatedly concerning his parting and womanizing, these two couple up on the plane and then stick together for the duration of the interviews, granting Frost a very pretty someone in whom to confide his self-doubts and share his ambitions.
For his part, Nixon is reviled pretty much across the board. Zelnick sums up the rage against the pardon granted Nixon (“The man who committed the greatest political felony in American history [escaped] out the back door”) while author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) declares that though he’d written four books about Nixon, he still doesn’t “know him”). The exception to the haters is Jack, who sees in Frost and his wifty compatriots all his own bad experiences. Remembering Nixon leaving the White House for the last time, he’s almost misty before he turns brutal: “I remember his face staring out the window,” Jack says in one of the film’s many talking-heads spots, awkward confessionals where players are named and tagged. “Liberal America cheered gloated, the same people who spit on me when I got back from Vietnam. They’d gotten rid of Richard Nixon, their boogieman.”
With the sides established, the film sets to the business of the interviews, staged as veritable “matches,” the camera cutting from one player to the other, split-screening to show, say, Frost himself as a blur and his television monitor image clear, or some other permutation of this aesthetic choice. The effect is gimmicky, the focus on the show business of the interviews obvious but not profound. Yes, they both play to an imagined audience of millions, and yes, their verbal sparring is alternately clever and aggressive. When at last the film offers up one big drama moment — Nixon’s drunken phone call to Frost one late night before the last of the four interview sessions — the close-ups give both men chances to hide and disclose at the same time, their faces large as the camera swings around them.
What’s missing, however, is a sense of what was—and is—at stake. While the Frost team waits eagerly for a slip that Frost engineers by deft questioning, an admission that Nixon overstepped or lied, the film treats their anticipation as if they are spectators at a sports match (or, your on-screen stand-ins for this handsome spectacle). The actual effects of Nixon’s administration’s corruptions—and they are many and lasting—are reduced to a couple of references to secret war-making and dissembling about reasons for war, as well as statements concerning the importance of making the truth visible, of setting records straight. What the movie misses in this excellent idealism is the politics of the interviews, the changes in today’s social and moral landscapes, the collusions of press and administration that are now presumed by cynical consumers, and the demands for superficial patriotism. If journalism seemed heroic in 1974 (following Woodward and Bernstein), current “news” tends toward entertainment, much as Frost did then. No matter Frost/Nixon‘s efforts to revise it, history will never be the same.