Ron HowardÂs 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 heÂd 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 verisimilitudeÂs substitution for historyÂs 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 FrostÂs game-changer and the belated hot lamp of interrogation that was denied by the absence of a jury trial.
In a way, itÂs the wellspring of ÂgotchaÂ journalism, which seeks little but the elevation of the Fourth EstateÂs own sense of self-importance, rather than anything so idealistic as the public interest. And letÂs face it, the millions who tuned in didnÂt care one whit about NixonÂs 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 DickÂs 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.
ItÂs telling that the story is told from FrostÂs point of view, such as it is, even though heÂs 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 classifyÂ 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 powerÂs 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, itÂs 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 pairÂs 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 (itÂs 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 thereÂs a painfully insecure man scurrying underneath.
The fictional phone call, then, is the filmÂs attempt to make obvious what is always apparent, which weakens the proceedings, though I think itÂs best to treat the scene as a dramatic ÂspurÂ to FrostÂs stalled interview. He knows heÂs 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 ÂrevelationsÂ on the final day were the result of accidental inspiration, which further erodes FrostÂs 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 ÂfreeÂ 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 NixonÂs handlers were careful to keep the scales decidedly unbalanced. Still, he knew televisionÂs 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 alsoÂ presumes a genuine belief in wrongdoing. As far as Nixon went — ÂI let the American people downÂ — it still manages to avoid any sense of personal failing. ÂI gave them a sword,Â he spits, Âand they stuck it inÂ and twisted it with relish.Â ItÂs 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 anyoneÂs 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 wasnÂt enough. Even with an unprecedented triumphÂ 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 filmÂs 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, ÂDid you do any fornicating?Â, I had always assumed (based on a book I had readÂ about the interviews) that it was yet another example of NixonÂs inability to engage in small talk. My god, was he really this awkward? The question was odd, but genuine. From theÂ curious substitute for Âhaving sexÂ or even ÂfuckingÂ (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 isÂ jabbed at Frost right as the camera is about to roll, and LangellaÂs 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 itÂs again apparent that despite the initial ride with Frost, this is NixonÂs apologia at long last. He won because he never gave them what they wanted. He even managed to dieÂ underÂ the respectable cloakÂ 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 NixonÂs grave. Along with his name and the usual dates of birth and death, there is a simple message: ÂThe greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.Â 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 manÂs legacy. ItÂs more than the final word, itÂs the last laugh. ItÂs a fitting bookend to the pomposity of the whole Frost project, and his naÃ¯ve assumption that Nixon could be bagged like a sick deer. FrostÂs mission was ratings and respect, and though he achieved both in kind, Frost/Nixon isnÂt about to applaud the result. And itÂs all the better for it.