Frost/Nixon (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2008)
"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," or so the saying goes. With Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard and playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan have taken this precept to heart. With this movie, a fictionalized account of real events, the filmmakers have fashioned a powerful and compelling duel between two iconic figures that, despite liberties taken with known facts, provides a few hard-earned truths and a complex portrait of one of the most controversial individuals to sit in the Oval Office. Especially in an era when the public's view of the presidency (and the man who holds it) has dropped to historic lows, it would be easy to demonize Nixon. By avoiding that lazy and easy pathway, Howard and Morgan have transformed this story into something more than an embellished re-telling of recent history. They have shaped a tragedy that is almost Shakespearean in force.
Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigned on August 9, 1974, two years after the Watergate break-in that resulted in the cover-up conspiracy that brought down his presidency. For the better part of three years, he remained in exile in California, shunning the media and not giving any interviews - until a British talk-show host by the name of David Frost (Michael Sheen) offered him $600,000 to sit down for a series of interviews covering four subjects: domestic policy, foreign policy, "Nixon the man," and Watergate. Seeing an opportunity to rehabilitate his image and imagining that Frost would offer softball questions, Nixon agreed. For Frost, it represented a mammoth gamble. Not only did he not have a ready buyer for the interviews but the idea of a talk-show host embarking upon an act of serious journalism was universally dismissed. Even Frost's three allies - John Burt (Matthew McFadyen), James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) - were not without skepticism. Only his girlfriend, Caroline (Rebecca Hall), stuck unwaveringly by his side.
About 50% of the film is re-created material from the interviews, often shifted, shaped, and edited to increase the drama. Obviously, a great deal had to be cut since the broadcast versions of the interviews spanned six hours (with many additional hours of footage not shown), and Howard wisely concentrates on the segments that are remembered and/or made history. For a while, the interviews represent a duel of wits between Nixon and Frost, with the older, more experienced man continually gaining the upper hand and deflecting every thrust, no matter how expertly played, that Frost could provide. But Watergate, Nixon's undoing in life, was also his undoing in the interview.
For the millions who watched the Watergate interview on television, the crowning moment came when Frost prodded Nixon to admit to being involved in a cover-up and to apologize to the American people. For many, including those Americans who had felt cheated when President Ford had pardoned Nixon, it was a moment of vindication. For Frost, it assured him of a long and prosperous lifestyle and recognition as more than a talk show host. For Nixon, ironically, it was not the end. The admission allowed him to move beyond Watergate and, despite the film's assertion to the contrary, he achieved a degree of rehabilitation in the public eye. Presidents Reagan, Bush (Sr.), and Clinton all turned to him for advice and, at the time of his death, far more was said about his positive legacy as a foreign policy guru than about Watergate. Nixon will always be linked inextricably with Watergate, but the Frost interviews allowed him to enter a new phase of life.
The two original leads from the London and Broadway versions of the play, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, reprise their roles for the film. Sheen, who may be best known to movie goers as Tony Blair in The Queen, portrays Frost as a playboy and dilettante, a man obsessed with celebrity culture and disinterested in politics. Sheen has the boyish charm to pull this off and to present Frost in the classic role of the underdog. Frost's naiveté allows him to be overmatched in the early rounds of their struggle, but Nixon's overconfidence paves the way for his downfall.
Langella has a much harder job, and his success makes it a bigger triumph. Here's where the Oscar nomination belongs (and where the Tony was awarded). By taking on the larger-than-life part of Nixon, Langella portrays a man whose image and mannerisms are known to every person older than age 30. Langella doesn't look or sound much like the late 37th President and, beyond combing his hair in a certain way and adding a little gravel to his voice, he doesn't go for mimicry. Yet, through sheer force of performance, he embodies Nixon. Midway through the film, an amazing transformation occurs. Suddenly, we're no longer looking at a re-creation, we're seeing Nixon. This is the same thing that Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's Nixon and that Josh Brolin failed to do in W. What's more, Nixon is not portrayed as a villain. He is shown as the classic tragic figure - someone brought down by a fatal flaw. Frost/Nixon indicts him but, in doing so, never forgets that Nixon was a human being.
I'll leave it to more detailed articles to provide meticulous lists of where the script deviates from reality, but there are a few instances worth a brief mention. Nixon's view on power and the Presidency ("When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal") was not part of the Watergate interview, as portrayed here. The climactic sequence of the Watergate interview was not interrupted in exactly the manner shown in the film. And, perhaps most importantly, there was no late-night drunken conversation about cheeseburgers - although it should be mentioned that this scene is one of the most dramatically potent ones in the entire film and provides insight into both of the title characters.
The tone of Frost/Nixon is staid and sure, as befits a movie with this subject, but there are powerful dramatic currents roiling beneath the sometimes calm surface. It's a forceful, unrelenting movie that folds back time and recalls, albeit imperfectly according to the public record, how a long national nightmare finally faded. It's a David vs. Goliath story where even the loser gained something. And, above all, is causes us to ponder the truth, or lack thereof, of Shakespeare's unforgettable words: "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." In a way, Nixon's presidency was buried during that final interview with Frost. But it gave his legacy a chance at new life. Had he denied to his dying day in 1994, he would have been forever viewed with scorn. His admission and remorse in front of a world-wide television audience allowed for a measure of healing on all sides. The way it has been dramatized in this movie allows us to feel and understand, if only a little.
Frost/Nixon (United States/United Kingdom/France, 2008)
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Mcfadyen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
Screenplay: Peter Morgan, based on his play
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures