Frost/Nixon: in review

Adam Underhill


“The American people need a conviction,” says James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) early in Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s distinguished adaptation of the stage production by the same name. He’s referring, of course, to former President Richard Nixon, pardoned for whatever crimes he may have committed during Watergate and its related scandals. Nixon, out of office three years when the film gets going, had always maintained his innocence in the matter, which begs the question: If he was innocent, why was he pardoned? It can be said that Nixon never fully owned up to his culpability, and the American people, forgiving as they are, never completely let him off the hook. His 1977 interviews with David Frost, on which the movie is centered, were the closest either side ever came to any kind of closure. Gerald Ford’s pardon made a conviction in the U.S. Senate impossible, but a conviction on television – a medium that more than once helped build Nixon up and tear him down – might, in the end, carry just as much weight. Television, the modern centerpiece of the American household, had in all its eminence changed the tide of opinion on Vietnam, aborting two presidencies in the process. Sure, its methods were unenlightened, but as an arena it was free of the bondages that have tied down the legal system. Anyway, it would have to do.

We’ve seen Nixon played by many actors and in many settings, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen him played with the understated power of Frank Langella. Most Nixon-based films revolve around either his ascension or his final days in office. Here Langella delivers a different Nixon, a still-confident but humiliated man living in a California exile with his tail between his legs. About the 37th president, as much can be gleaned from an early shot of Langella, peering sheepishly out his window as David Frost (Michael Sheen) arrives with his producer and a young lady friend, as in all of Nixon’s dialogue in the movie. And yet despite his slouch and puppy dog eyes, Langella cuts an imposing figure, reminding us that the man we elected was not the cartoon character we’d prefer him to be. In subsequent scenes, Langella slowly releases the inner, dark Nixon, the one we remember cursing on White House tapes, drinking highballs, hairy and sweaty. In his performance, Langella walks a fine line, but not once does he stumble into caricature. Like the real Tricky Dick, he is capable of eliciting both disgust and empathy, sometimes simultaneously.

Of course, Nixon’s adversary in this arena is David Frost, a blow-dried British television host known more for chatting up celebrities than world leaders. In a series of interviews with Frost, Nixon sees a golden opportunity to knock a few softballs out of the park and hopefully resuscitate his reputation, not to mention earn a truckload of cash. Frost, who ponies up a large amount of Nixon’s princely fee personally after his sponsors get cold feet, sees an opportunity to shake his status as a lightweight journalist. If he happens to wring a confession out of Nixon, it seems to matter more to Frost as a career benchmark than as a catharsis for the American public. It is to this end that his cohorts, the author Reston and ABC newsman Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) prod and push Frost to stay on Nixon, to interrupt him, and to challenge him. But like a football team establishing itself on a grueling, clock-consuming opening drive, Nixon controls the early rounds, keeping Frost on his heels and distracting him with condescending humor. “Did you do any fornicating?” Nixon pointedly asks just as the cameras begin to roll. Sheen, who early on plays Frost’s playboy journalist with the slightest hint of Austin Powers’ self-aware comedic sexuality, here wears the look of a man slapped across the face by his subject. He can’t understand why someone would do such a thing.

It’s not until a (fictional) late night phone call that the tide begins to turn. Drunk on hubris and alcohol, Nixon engages in perhaps a little too much trash talking, finally provoking Frost to get up off the mat and fight back. It’s a poignant scene, of the classic “we’re a lot alike, you and I” variety. Nixon sees something familiar in Frost, an underdog, someone from outside the moneyed elite who crashed their party, rose through their ranks, but never truly became one of them. Nevertheless, Nixon assures his opponent that victory will be inevitable, thorough, and unmerciful. “The limelight can only shine on one of us,” he reminds Frost, “and for the other, it’ll be the wilderness.”

As a late-70s period piece, Frost/Nixon is refreshingly light on cultural indicators. Frost embarks on the obligatory Eastern Airlines flight (Hollywood loves defunct airlines, don’t ask me why), and the interviews themselves take place in a modest Los Angeles home that seems to be tipping its hat to “The Brady Bunch.” Like Oliver Stone did with Nixon (1995), director Ron Howard opens with a Watergate-era news montage, where we see all of the familiar faces from that real political drama. Unlike Stone, Howard maintains a patient, deliberate pace throughout the movie. Probably because the source material is a play (which I have not seen), the dialogue dominates, and Howard respects this dominance by not distracting us from his actors’ lines (written by Peter Morgan, who wrote the play). That’s not a knock on Stone, whose movies I enjoy. It’s just a compliment to Howard, who must have been tempted to use sexier means to tell the story. Instead, he trusted Langella, Sheen, and the supporting cast to give superb performances, and I suspect Howard will be duly rewarded for his restraint, come February.

In a strange sense of timing that the publicity-minded Nixon might have found amusing (or infuriating), Frost/Nixon’s wide December 25 release has been preceded by the death of a central – and until recently, mysterious – character in the Watergate universe. W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, passed away on December 18 at age 95. Felt was the associate director of the FBI during the Nixon years. When the White House began its efforts to cover up the failed break-in at Democratic Headquarters, it put pressure on the FBI to back away from its investigation. This, Felt believed, was obstruction of justice, and he took it to the press. But rather than phone the city desk at the Washington Post, Felt embarked on a double-life of secret, underground meetings straight out of a pulp novel. As if anticipating an “I Remember the 70s” special on VH1 three decades later, Felt assumed the moniker of a popular porn movie of the day as his alias, and kept the Watergate story humming through Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The Deep Throat saga reeks of Hollywood altruism (capitalized on in All The President’s Men (1976), of course), but, Watergate being Watergate, no one’s hands were clean. Felt knew a thing or two about illegal break-ins, authorizing a few of his own as Nixon’s downfall unfolded. In 1980, Felt was convicted in a trial in which Nixon begrudgingly testified on his behalf; he was later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. If the cycle of break-ins, cover-ups, and pardons teach us anything, it’s that there were no heroes in this mess. Washington was rotten by 1972, if it had ever approached anything resembling nobility in the first place. “I let the American people down,” Nixon laments. That’s indisputable, but perhaps in so doing, he did the American people a favor. There were terrible presidents and malodorous scandals before Dick Nixon, but Watergate took our blinders off. Today, a man who spent large parts of his life working to improve inner-city Chicago, or a man beaten within an inch of his life in Vietnam, is guilty until proven innocent of being untrustworthy and selfishly ambitious (at the very least) when he runs for president. It comes with the territory when you’re in the business of trying to be liked. Nixon didn’t create America’s skepticism of government and politicians. He awakened it.

I won’t be spoiling anything by saying that for Richard Nixon, the years remaining were mostly wilderness. He advised subsequent presidents, published numerous books, and visited foreign countries whose people warmly regarded him as his own never could. Nevertheless, he failed to shed the albatross of Watergate, and our collective memory will never divorce the two. Still, in the end Ron Howard’s otherwise brilliant film falls into the same trap as Langella’s Nixon, by proclaiming unambiguous victory over its antagonist. As with all of the battles Nixon – man and image – fought and will continue to fight, ambiguity messes up the picture, coloring outside the lines and leaving us with something more abstract than a single close up frame from a television show can provide. For the American people, Frost/Nixon is compelling and entertaining evidence. For Richard Nixon, the trial continues.