Those of us who lived through it will never forget how it unraveled before our unbelieving eyes. As each new day brought another revelation, as White House damage control caused as much controversy as calm, as names like Woodward, Bernstein, Halderman, Dean, Liddy, and Ervin became part of our political nomenclature, only one word – Watergate – would remain synonymous with the entire Nixon era scandal. So it was with great interest that we revisited the darkest moment in American history on 19 May 1977 when British journalist David Frost scored the exclusive interview with the then disgraced President himself. Instead of bombshells, however, we got an oral history of the ex-leaders many accomplishments. Even the supposed coerced admission was half-baked and hearted.
But not now. Now, we get the power of the motion picture artform turning history into a remarkable bit of faux fictionalized payback. With his corpse cold and in the ground some 14 years now, and a great deal of Washington handwringing behind us, UK playwright Peter Morgan has taken his penchant for revising the past to create Frost/Nixon. A stage hit both abroad and here at home, it follows a failing Frost as he tries to find a way to jumpstart his sagging journalist credentials. Seen by many as a celeb-utante info-tainer, he was desperate for some smidgen of seriousness. Getting Nixon to talk seemed like the logical way to go – and since no one else was willing to pay for the privilege, Frost put his money where his mouth would soon be.
Of course, knowing little except what he saw on television, he grabbed a couple of consultants with agendas of their own. Bob Zelnick, Washington insider and lawyer wanted the truth to be told. College professor and Nixon naysayer James Reston Jr. just wanted the bastard hung out to dry. Together, they meticulously researched the possible Q&A while Frost worked out the details. Going head to head with ex-Marine Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, an approved plan was proposed. Frost would get four interview “specials”, each one focusing on a different subject. Nixon would sit down for 12 separate sessions, with Watergate not taking up more than 25% of the final product. While Zelnick and Reston complained, Frost accepted.
There’s much more to the story, a lot of it focusing on Frost and his personal stake in the Nixon material. Paying for most of it out of his pocket, and taking the heat from those who thought he was outmatched, outmanned, and out maneuvered, this was a true leap of faith. It’s from a Frost-ccentric vantage point that Ron Howard offers up his take on the Morgan material, opening up the play while keeping the claustrophobic feel of the two actors’ one-on-one. Utilizing the original theatrical cast – a terrific Michael Sheen as Frost, a fine Frank Langella as Nixon – and complementing them with a wonderful set of supporting players including Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and a surprise moment from former Bad Seed Patty McCormack (as a petrified, predatory Pat Nixon), we get the best this kind of truth stretching can provide.
Yet there’s something here that doesn’t feel right. There’s a weirdness watching events etched indelibly in your brain, especially when they play out in a slightly off-kilter, pro posthumous re-examination manner. Make no mistake about it – Frost/Nixon is engaging cinematic theater, nothing more, and a great deal less. Its import offered up via grandstanding, showboating, and inferred integrity. In dealing with what is, perhaps, the most monumental issue of mistrust ever to try and undermine American democracy, history is reduced to a series of humorless confrontations, each one meant to signify something beyond its actual weight. Articles have been written about the factual inaccuracies in Morgan’s script, but that’s really beside the point. This may be the first good film that feels a necessity to tweak the truth in order to make the inevitable more dramatic, and cinematically palatable.
Clearly, we are supposed to see Frost and Nixon as cut from the same careerist cloth. Politics and performing are mirrored here, accented by director Howard’s Me Decade familiarity. But where the ex-President is a well worn known quantity, the UK jive master is not, and Frost frequently steals the narrative attention away from his Executive Branch quarry. Sheen is particularly brilliant as the mope behind the manic mask, a consistent façade of optimism covering up the flop sweat. We become so engrossed in Frost’s failed occupation, his party time disco diversions taking precious attention away from his supposed serious journalism that we wait for the moment when it all implodes. It comes during a late night phone call with a drunk Nixon, motivational clarifications arriving in spurts of spoken epiphanies. At the end, the former leader of the free world is sunk, having given over his hand to man who simply needed a real reason to succeed.
This is not to say that Langella is bad, he’s just not the Tricky Dick we remember. There’s a passing physical resemblance and an occasional triumph of cadence, but this is a Nixon that’s too much of a fame whore, too hungry for a chance to clear his name. There is none of the aggressive arrogance we’ve come to expect from the man who uttered the infamous line “I am not a crook”. Langella just doesn’t look or act like the kind of Commander in Chief who would make an enemies list or sling epithets at fellow Washington insiders. And at the end, when a defeated Nixon sounds a last gasp wish for some manner of humanity, he’s given the good old boy brush-off, leading to the one sour note in the entire film. Howard should be commended for keeping this freewheeling inversion of the truth from constantly flying off the handle. Instead, he devises a powerful drama out of good dialogue, great performances, and a splash of celebrated synchronicity.
It may not be enough for old school apologists who think our 37th President got a really raw deal, and someone like the late Hunter S. Thompson is probably spinning around in his grave over the “one confession and out” conclusion to the plotline. But make no mistake about it – Frost/Nixon is a fine film, destined to be considered among 2008’s most powerful and provocative. But unlike All the President’s Men, which used Watergate as a backdrop for explaining investigative journalism and the rise of the reporter as an important part of the Constitutional process, there is no compelling context here – just two men, each wanting a piece of the limelight, scrambling to see who will succeed. The results are undoubtedly entertaining. The truth, as usual, has no place in such a panacea.