Posted December 3, 2008 in Film

“Nixon the man? As opposed to what—Nixon the horse?” grumbles Tricky Dick (Frank Langella) when his agent Swifty (Toby Jones) lays out the four segments of his upcoming interview with British pop television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). Eager to burnish his reputation, Frost laid out over half-a-million of his own cash upfront to score Nixon’s first interview after resigning office. Frost was certain the networks would snatch it up; they didn’t, as the common Washington wisdom was that he was better suited to interviewing the Bee Gees. Both men were desperate for public approval—a parallel writer Peter Morgan draws distinctly in his Tony-nominated play and now in this brisk film directed by Ron Howard.  


An opening montage sets up Frost and Nixon’s 1977 collision: Three-and-a-half years after leaving the White House, Nixon was biding his time at the golf courses of Yorba Linda (a game he claimed he hated) while waiting for the public to forgive him for Watergate and welcome him back to D.C. It wasn’t likely. Among Americans’ many grievances was his refusal to admit wrong-doing—an unpardonable omission even in the era before the de rigueur televised apology. People thought he’d gotten off lightly; if Nixon agreed, he wasn’t about to confirm it.  


Coached by advisers Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant), Nixon steadied himself for the interview he hoped would be his first step towards redemption. In Frost’s corner were John Birt (Matthew Macfayden), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), the latter of whom hungered for Nixon’s blood like a moon-starved werewolf. The interviews, spread out over 12 two-hour sessions, are framed like boxing matches. Each man sees this as his personal moment of Rocky glory (the movie had come out the year before), and while the metaphor is over-played, it’s apt. Before their final verbal duel, Howard shows us Nixon warming up by jogging in a sweat suit over triumphant music. And in case we miss the point, Nixon hammers it home in nearly every exchange with the feckless Frost—though to be fair, playboy Frost was late in grasping his warning, much to his counselors’ frustration. In the film’s centerpiece scene, the president calls up the dilettante and drunkenly tells him that they’re both poor kids who’ve earned their success—and the scars of class resentment that came with the climb—thus spelling out another of Morgan’s analyses. It’s a knockout scene and would be even better if it were true, but failing actual honesty, it’s a powerful moment of emotional honesty.  


Langella and Sheen played the roles on Broadway, Langella—who has the showier part—racking up several awards and nominations in the process. It goes without saying that both actors are excellent, but I’ll say it again because they deserve it. Langella looks so little like Nixon, he’s introduced doing the former president’s two-fingered salute as if we’d have no idea who he was if he had just slipped into the frame wearing a suit. In profile, his nose—or whatever putty they’ve added to his nose—is fine, and with our eyes closed, his accurate voice rumbles and pauses and ruminates and charges ahead bullishly. Like W., and like Morgan’s earlier film The Queen, Frost/Nixon’s skill is that it humanizes history books and the leaders in them with tarnished names. More so than the other films, Morgan and Howard are dealing not with a monkey fool or a stone monarch, but the 20th century’s most human president, save perhaps Bill Clinton. Nixon sweated and fretted and plotted with the same urgency he would have had if he had never been more than a grocery store manager. Here, when he finally stops outrunning his past, we want nothing more than to offer him a hug and a handkerchief to wipe his brow. 


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