Frost/Nixon (review)

All the President’s Mien

I saw Frost/Nixon, the play, on Broadway in August 2007. I was there for Michael Sheen, playing Frost, whom I’ve been pretty much in love with since The Queen (he played Tony Blair), and for playwright Peter Morgan, who’d written The Queen, which I consider one of the great movies of this decade. And yeah, that Frank Langella guy playing Nixon was pretty cool, too. I have no memory of the actual Richard Nixon as President — I was busy getting ready to start kindergarten when he resigned from the Oval Office — nor of Frost’s 1977 interviews with him. I was there simply to see a piece of theater written by a great writer performed by two great actors.
And it just so happened that the performance I attended, just before the show was ending its Broadway run, came just after the news was announced that it would be heading to be big screen… just after we heard that Ron Howard would be directing it. So I was ready to evaluate the play not just as a piece of stagecraft but for its cinematic potential, too. Although it was hard to imagine that Howard, the man who’d wielded the obscenely sentimental sledgehammer of A Beautiful Mind and the filmmaker who brought us the just-plain-wrong live-action adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas was the right man to take on this story of political and journalistic machinations and clashing personalities. Mind you, I felt that way before I’d even seen the play… which turned out to be even more problematic: it was very theatrical, all addresses to the audience and stagey asides and lacking in the kind of dynamic narrative a film needs. I couldn’t see how a film that bore any resemblance to the play would work as a film (for surely Howard liked the play as it was, and that’s why he’d chosen to adapt it for film), and if the film did look like the play… well, the play felt forced in its metaphors and twisted up in its own reasoning.

Yes, I know it won all sorts of awards on stage — in London, where it originated, as well as in New York — but this was the sort of hopeless dread I was left with. I felt like Robert Stack in Airplane!: “It’s a goddamn waste of time — there’s no way he can land this plane!”

So when I tell you that Howard landed this plane the way that Sulley Sullenberger landed that U.S. Airways plane on the Hudson River last week… well, that’s the kind of triumph Frost/Nixon is as a film. Howard has, thankfully, resisted all desire to embellish or frou-frou up a story that is plenty riveting on its own. Instead he took a cue from himself, from his own first truly great film more than a decade ago, Apollo 13 (one of the best films of the 1990s), and stepped back and let the story tell itself. Like Apollo 13, there’s an almost documentary-style straightforwardness to Frost/Nixon that is absolutely appropriate: larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things, whether it’s flying to the moon or bringing down a President, don’t need any embellishment. But, conversely, too, we get a more intimate look at real events and real people than a strictly journalistic documentary could ever hope to give us, with all the conceits of fiction — the big one being that the characters never know we’re watching them, as documentary subjects often do — serving to bring larger-than-life characters down to human scale.

These are the facts, in case you, like me, weren’t paying attention the first time around: Nixon resigns in disgrace from the Presidency in 1974. Incoming President Gerald Ford pardons him for his Watergate crimes. Nixon rides off into retirement in California. British journalist and interviewer David Frost pursues Nixon, wants to do a tell-all TV confab with him; the former President reluctantly agrees. Four 90-minute specials air on American television in 1977, and over the course of them Nixon now infamously avers that nothing that the President does should be considered illegal, even if it actually is.

Frost/Nixon is the story of how those interviews came about. As with Apollo 13, the ending is a foregone conclusion, a matter of inalterable fact — that money quote from Nixon even features prominently in the film’s advertising — and yet the telling of it is wildly suspenseful. We have Frost, hardly the ultraconfident fellow his public image as a jetsetting playboy and indefatigible self-promoter hints at, struggling to pull this project together: he basically invents the concept of self-syndicated TV when the American networks reject his proposal. He’s a basket case of self-doubt, and if not actually out of his intellectual league with Nixon — as one of Nixon’s advisors (Kevin Bacon: Where the Truth Lies, Beauty Shop) suggests — then certainly unprepared for a proudly not-ready-for-primetime personality like Nixon, who refuses, once the days-long interviews are actually in progress, to acede to the sound-bite demands of television.

(Sheen [Blood Diamond, Kingdom of Heaven] and Langella [Superman Returns, Good Night, and Good Luck.] reprise their stage roles here, and while Langella is rightly being praised to the heavens for his performance — see below for more about how astonishing he is here — it’s a shame that Sheen’s performance in a necessarily less showy role is being overlooked. The two of them together create one of the most dynamic screen duos I’ve seen in ages.)

Those sound-bite demands? Nowhere near as intense as they are today. Never mind the inconceivability of a television network devoting six hours — in prime time! — to an extended interview with even an infamous world leader. One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the amount of preparation that went into the interviews: Frost hires a duo of journalists and writers and Nixon experts — played by Sam Rockwell (Choke, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Oliver Platt (Martian Child, Casanova) — who worked for months to organize a plan of attack and gather just the right questions for Frost to pin Nixon with. Rockwell’s James Reston Jr. sees this as the chance to put Nixon on trial before the American public. “He devalued the presidency,” Reston says, “and he left the country that elected him in trauma.” Time to start the healing.

It’s almost too perfect, the timing of Frost/Nixon, the movie, and even sitting in that Broadway theater a year and half ago, before we had any inkling of how the presidential election of 2008 would play out or how the mood of the country would shift, I could feel how this idea — trying a President in the court of public opinion in a venue more entertainment minded that legalistic — was inexorably bubbling its way through the zeitgeist, from the West End (where it was conceived before George W. Bush was even elected governor of Texas!) to Broadway to Hollywood and now — and I sensed the inevitability of this when I first saw the film two and a half months ago — to the Oscars. If ever a movie was in the right place at the right time, it’s this one, not just for its pitch perfect depiction of a moment in history but for the what-if it rings for today: What if we hadn’t gone from David Frost to Rush Limbaugh in the last 30 years? What if there’s another David Frost waiting to move now?

You can forget all that, though, and just love Frost/Nixon for the story it has to tell of its own moment, when television finally trumped politics — this was the end of the end of Nixon just as that first televised debate with Kennedy, where Nixon sweated and Kennedy kept his cool, was the beginning of the end for any politician who wasn’t telegenic. It’s when politics finally became just another genre of entertainment. If the movie has a money quote, it’s the one about the “reductive power of the closeup,” which is what brought Nixon down in the Frost interviews as much as what he said did. Here’s the camera, right in Nixon’s face, and not only is he literally sweating like a pig, he’s figuratively sweating, too: discomfort oozes off him so pungently that you forget you’re watching Frank Langella the actor playing a part — he seems more like Nixon than Nixon.

It’s almost bizarre that Peter Morgan — who wrote the screen version, too — initially conceived this story as a stage play, because there’s no way that the stage can truly be about something so filmic as the “reductive power of the closeup.” Oh, sure, in the stage version of Frost/Nixon, lots of people tell us about it, but here, in the film, we can see it for ourselves. And it is powerful indeed.

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