History in the Making
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in Ron Howard’s movie
In 1969, just after Richard Nixon was elected President, he gave a press conference in which he addressed the question of Soviet-American relations. His remarks were an entirely cogent and candid summing up of the state of affairs, and, among the cadre of Nixon haters, of whom, even though young, I was a veteran, the shock was considerable. Some of us had made the mistake of not noticing that Nixon was extremely intelligent. Later on, of course, during the Watergate crisis, Nixon’s brilliance was overcome by pathologies of various kinds. One of the virtues of “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s hit play, is that it brings the intelligence back to the forefront without dispelling the elements of menace and fraudulence that were also part of Nixon’s temperament. The movie re-creates the circumstances around the famous set of televised interviews that the British talk-show entrepreneur David Frost conducted with Nixon in 1977, three years after he resigned the Presidency. Howard and Morgan have opened up the play to the big-media world of airports, hotels, limos, and anxious telephone calls, but the center of the material is still the interviews themselves, and what each man hoped to gain from them: Nixon (Frank Langella) wanted fresh access to the stage as a statesman; Frost (Michael Sheen), whose career was in decline, wanted a chance to be taken seriously as a journalist. The interviews turn into a duel: Will Frost get Nixon to break his iron habits of denial? Or will Nixon face down Frost and escape public judgment, cheating the American people yet again of an apology, a confession of sin?
During the preparations and the negotiations, we quickly take the measure of Frost—an affable, chipper, smart, but rather shallow showman with plenty of hustle and daring. But Nixon keeps changing; we never do completely understand him. Langella has mastered the rumbling voice with its occasional touch of animal growl. He leans forward as he walks, almost apelike as his arms hang down; he gets Nixon’s heaviness of bearing, the awkwardness, the grotesque sentimentality, and also his power, the dangerousness even in retreat. This man notices many things, including any eccentricity of dress, any hint of weakness in his opponent, and he’s cagey about offering signs of friendliness—an anecdote, a bit of personal advice—that would make Frost falter. Protected and coached by the fierce ex-marine Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon dominates the early interviews, talking at length, cutting off tough questions. But then, after unleashing the journalist James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who finds evidence that Nixon knew of the Watergate cover-up well before he claimed, Frost sees his chance for victory and gets to work.
“Frost/Nixon” offers considerable insight into the Nixon mystery, without solving it; the movie is fully absorbing and even, when Nixon falls into a drunken, resentful rage, exciting, but I can’t escape the feeling that it carries about it an aura of momentousness that isn’t warranted by the events. Why is it meant to be so important to us whether David Frost revives his career? Frost and Reston did finally goad Nixon into saying that he let the American people down, and that he believed that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal,” and they have extracted a considerable amount of copy out of the broadcasts (including two books). But it’s possible that both journalists and playwright have confused a media coup (and a less important one than that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) with a cleansing act that forever chastened the Presidency. It was anything but that: after all, twenty-four years later, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney entered the White House.