Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, like the prize-winning play that preceded it, is not intended as a history lesson. Sure, it grates that Peter Morgan (both the playwright and the screenwriter) felt compelled to embellish, speculate, and add the blatantly fictional (for example, a late night drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost), but as the interviews were never about anything but show business to begin with, a scholarly adherence to the record is neither appropriate nor desirable. David Frost (Michael Sheen) was in fact a playboy and a carnival barker, rescued from exile in Australia by these legendary sessions, and at the time, Nixon was himself grunting and pissing away his post-resignation years regurgitating tired anecdotes before semi-conscious convention halls.
Indeed, the former president needed an image makeover — a full rehabilitation, in fact — while Frost wanted desperately to prove that he could at least aspire to journalism, even if he’d never secure any title more illustrious than television personality. This symbiotic affair, then, based always on money, fame, and craven reinvention, is the basis of this most fascinating movie; a powerhouse of acting skill, clever wordplay, and involved storytelling, yes, but more than that, a top-notch examination of verisimilitude’s substitution for history’s fingerprint.
Depressingly, the film also charts a decidedly American turn: our lust for humiliation, most often associated with public figures who dare not live up to our expectations of fidelity and cowering deference. When these men are bad little boys, we expect the usual gauntlet: apology, lip-biting, pleas for forgiveness, and self-flagellation bordering on masochism. Frost himself came to this conclusion, spurred on by his partners in crime (led by writer Jimmy Reston) and a culture that felt cheated because Nixon never formally accepted responsibility for his crimes. As such, the interviews stood as both Frost’s game-changer and the belated hot lamp of interrogation that was denied by the absence of a jury trial.
In a way, it’s the wellspring of “gotcha” journalism, which seeks little but the elevation of the Fourth Estate’s own sense of self-importance, rather than anything so idealistic as the public interest. And let’s face it, the millions who tuned in didn’t care one whit about Nixon’s path from tragedy to the White House, nor his triumphs with China and the Soviet Union; they waited until that final night — the Watergate session — to hear Tricky Dick’s groveling apology. They never did get it, of course, but they did get confirmation of their worst fears: then and always, Nixon believed himself to be above the law.
It’s telling that the story is told from Frost’s point of view, such as it is, even though he’s clearly the least interesting (and more shallow) of the pair. Personal failings he may have had, but Nixon possessed a sharp intellect, and few brought more experience and political savvy to the job. He also knew how to manipulate an audience, twist a position to fit the context, and leave opponents baffled by his slick strategies of co-opting more liberal ideas and reshaping them as his own. Funny, then, that this masterful statesman allowed himself to tumble from his perch for mere trifles, which is the only way to classify actions his predecessors had themselves replicated without any real scrutiny (or judgment).
Sure, Nixon shit on the Constitution and used the office of the presidency to settle scores, but who on earth has ever tasted power’s sting and not proceeded in a similar fashion? But RN perspired like a pig, lacked charisma, and could no more seduce a leggy dame than play pick-up basketball with Bill Russell, so he had to be destroyed. His constant nemesis, the martyred Kennedy, was equally corrupt and stood toe-to-toe as a cold warrior, so why the historical disconnect? The film alludes to this oft-mentioned resentment, and as spoken, it’s eminently agreeable. Why do we give a pass to a man whose own brother (and Attorney General) bugged the sainted Martin Luther King, yet damn a man who, at least domestically, leaned more to the left than Kennedy ever dared?
As played by the towering talent of Frank Langella, Nixon is as we expect him to be — self-righteous, deluded, prickly — but in the interviews, he is granted a prestige that is much-deserved. Of course Nixon treated Frost as a mere servant to his greater cause, and rightfully so, given the pair’s divergent courses. Langella differs physically in some respects, but given the impossible task at hand — take a man reduced by caricature and instill a bit of humanity — he succeeds beyond any reasonable expectations. This is no mere impression (it’s been done, thanks), but a fully realized man; the man, given what we know (or think we know). Langella wisely injects stature into the performance, even though there’s a painfully insecure man scurrying underneath.
The fictional phone call, then, is the film’s attempt to make obvious what is always apparent, which weakens the proceedings, though I think it’s best to treat the scene as a dramatic “spur” to Frost’s stalled interview. He knows he’s losing the battle to a superior foe (mainly by letting Nixon speak uninterrupted), and by hearing the president spit and rage, he learns quickly that he must push the right buttons to achieve the desired result. In this way, the film suggests that any “revelations” on the final day were the result of accidental inspiration, which further erodes Frost’s status as a media hero. Without the call, it would seem, Frost would have wasted a golden opportunity, and been out $600,000 to boot. Only the call never occurred. Such is the magic of dramatic license.
So what of this hefty payday? Has checkbook journalism ruined the state of the art? Perhaps, but the film hardly tears Frost limb from limb for creating a monster. Given that most interviews, even those with highly regarded political figures, are little more than puff pieces designed to sway public opinion, the “free” media is hardly in the position of blasting a for-profit turn. Signing Nixon to such a lucrative deal was, in many ways, more honest, and deep down, each figure knew that the contract came with certain expectations, even if Nixon’s handlers were careful to keep the scales decidedly unbalanced. Still, he knew television’s power (how else had he saved his own career?), and would teach the young upstart a lesson. Traps would be set, but Nixon would never let himself fall into them; at least not completely.
A man like Nixon, the psychologists suggest, always has a subconscious need to confess, but I gather this also presumes a genuine belief in wrongdoing. As far as Nixon went — “I let the American people down” — it still manages to avoid any sense of personal failing. “I gave them a sword,” he spits, “and they stuck it in…and twisted it with relish.” It’s a hopelessly self-pitying declaration, but no less true for the pathos. Millions of people cheered when Nixon fell from grace, but this assumes that he was in ever any anyone’s good graces to begin with. Despite a landslide re-election, he stands as the least popular man ever given a second term so convincingly. As expected, the victory still wasn’t enough. Even with an unprecedented triumph in sight, he set in motion the very events that would bring about his destruction. Such men tally not victories, but actual and inevitable losses.
There will be some who will continue to sit in judgment of Nixon, during and after this film, and it will likely be yet another opportunity to gloat at his self-imposed misery. They know all the quirks and mannerisms, and love to chuckle at his lack of polish. But a key line reveals, perhaps, the film’s maturity in a way that speaks to a new thematic consideration of the man and the myth. When Nixon asks Frost about his evening, and inquires, “Did you do any fornicating?”, I had always assumed (based on a book I had read about the interviews) that it was yet another example of Nixon’s inability to engage in small talk. My god, was he really this awkward? The question was odd, but genuine. From the curious substitute for “having sex” or even “fucking” (hell, Nixon used the term more than we knew, now that the tapes have been made public), to the gross invasion of privacy, we were meant to cringe at the sheer embarrassment of it all.
Now, the line is jabbed at Frost right as the camera is about to roll, and Langella’s expression speaks to a knowing glow. What better way to throw the man off and take the upper hand? At last, Nixon was no buffoon, but a calculating fighter who used his own image against the very people who dared underestimate him. Take this little tidbit with the final scene, where Nixon is granted a measure of sympathy, and it’s again apparent that despite the initial ride with Frost, this is Nixon’s apologia at long last. He won because he never gave them what they wanted. He even managed to die under the respectable cloak of an elder statesman.
Though the film deals primarily with the days and weeks of the interview sessions, it may have been appropriate to conclude the film with a shot of Nixon’s grave. Along with his name and the usual dates of birth and death, there is a simple message: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” The audacity is arguably unparalleled. Consider the invasion of Cambodia, the Christmas bombings, the sabotaged peace conference, the napalm, the Chilean coup, and on and on, and return to the epitaph. Does he believe it? Without question, but his own opinion on the matter means less than the clear message it sends to all those who consider the man’s legacy. It’s more than the final word, it’s the last laugh. It’s a fitting bookend to the pomposity of the whole Frost project, and his naďve assumption that Nixon could be bagged like a sick deer. Frost’s mission was ratings and respect, and though he achieved both in kind, Frost/Nixon isn’t about to applaud the result. And it’s all the better for it.