Movie Review: Frost/Nixon
The Charlotte Observer
If “Frost/Nixon” were merely a beautifully shaped re-creation of a moment in history – a moment that sealed forever the legacy of a man who could have been a great U.S. president – it would be worth a look. But as a reminder of the world we live in 31 years later, where the term “imperial presidency” resonates just as strongly, it's as sadly topical as any documentary about the Iraq War.
A crucial moment comes when interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) if the president should be allowed to commit illegal acts. “I'm saying,” scoffs Nixon, “that if the president does it, it's
not illegal.” We can debate whether George W. Bush's executive actions have helped or hurt the country, but his claim to presidential “authority” puts Nixon's in the shade.
If you didn't live through Watergate, it's hard to imagine how shocking it seemed to an America that had passed civil rights legislation and walked on the moon in the previous decade. (When I heard about the burglary, I was a college sophomore and still inclined to believe that our government generally had citizens' interests at heart.)
The script, adapted by Peter Morgan from his Tony-nominated play, sets up the Watergate history just well enough for the uninitiated to know where they stand in the early part of the film. Most of it takes place in 1977, when both title characters aimed to improve their reputations.
Frost wanted to prove he wasn't fit only for lightweight talk shows or satirical news revues, so he risked his own money to underwrite a series of four interviews with Nixon. The former president appreciated the half-million-dollar payday but was more excited about resuscitating his reputation: If he could get Frost to stress his positive achievements, which even his detractors had to acknowledge, he might again influence the Republican Party.
Morgan and director Ron Howard set the film up as a boxing match. In Nixon's corner stands ex-Marine Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), more rigidly devoted to the president's cause than the man himself, and future journalist Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant). Frost enlists lefty writers James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) as cornermen, hoping their research will provide ammunition for a knockout blow on Watergate.
Howard's the ideal director for this material: He has never had great imagination, but he's a careful and intelligent craftsman who gives the material on the page the best presentation, and his knowledge of camera angles and pacing serves Morgan beautifully.
Langella and Sheen created these roles on Broadway and inhabit them fully. Sheen will be overlooked at awards time, because his character is so low-key: The softly ingratiating Frost never lets himself get too carried away in love (with bemused Rebecca Hall) or war under the studio lights.
Subtle as Langella is, he has the showier role. He doesn't mimic Nixon so much as settle into his bearlike, shuffling walk and suspicious glare. He catches that “don't tread on me” quality in Nixon's voice; the ex-president forever baits enemies and tests friends, as if afraid he won't be able to tell one from the other.
Langella has always been a cerebral actor, one who never gives away all he's thinking. What comes through in this portrayal is how smart Nixon was, whether he's cunningly probing Frost's weaknesses or pitching himself to TV viewers as an avuncular, misunderstood Cold Warrior.
That was the man's tragedy, of course. To endure the fumblings of any stupid president is a sad thing. But to see a potentially brilliant leader trip over his own ego and paranoia, as Nixon did, is a waste to make the gods weep.