Director Ron Howard’s film based on Peter Morgan’s 2007 stage play Frost/Nixon (Morgan wrote the screenplay also) makes a compelling case for television as a medium for truth-telling without over-simplification (as is often charged—by, among others, me, to be frank).
The movie has the usual Hollywood idea of “balance,” but I guess the slash in the title is fair warning of that. Frank Langella plays Nixon as human, haunted, and smart, while taking nothing away from his being crooked. He’s also handsomer than the real Nixon (or any of his subsequent impersonators) ever looked.
The plot centers on the conflict between Nixon and television interviewer David Frost (played charismatically by Michael Sheen—both Sheen and Langella acted in the original London stage production).
Nixon and Frost are represented as alpha-dog competitors who pulled themselves up from humble, working-class backgrounds, tasted great success, and, in 1977, the time setting of this story, hit upon the idea of an epic four-part television interview as a way perhaps to regain the limelight—at a time when both stink of failure, Nixon in disgrace, Frost as a laughingstock.
One small point of interest (to me, anyway) is that Pat Nixon is played by Patty McCormick (who, 52 years ago, played Rhoda Penmark—another Type A personality gone wild—in The Bad Seed). I have to wonder if that’s a bit of trick casting—if so, I got it and enjoyed the hommage, and even if not, McCormick conveys a lot in a very small role.
We see a team of writers and researchers who assist the former President—but his firmest support appears to be former Marine Lt. Col. Jack Brennan (played by Kevin Bacon), a man of respect and stoic loyalty. Bacon’s performance is understated, with nuances of reserved emotion that Bacon has become a master of.
The film more fully develops Frost ‘s support team, as that is where the drama lies—we have the show-biz professional in producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), the pragmatist in journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), the idealist in academic researcher James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and the unconditional support of girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall).
The film is riveting—tightly directed by Howard, with smart, insightful dialogue by Morgan, engrossing character work by all the players. At several points the movie had me near tears—though this is not a tearjerker—notably when Reston states his zeal for seeing Nixon brought to justice and, later, when Frost, not a particularly deep man, but spending money out of his own pocket to produce the interviews, while hammered by his own team for producing schlock television, simply wants to celebrate his birthday.
As I said, the film makes a compelling case for television—its ability to convey nuance, the truthfulness of its “eye” (which “never blinks,” as TV newsman Dan Rather once famously noted). In my view, the film more convincingly supports a claim for television’s cathartic power, to exercise and purge painful emotions—particularly through the use of the close-up shot.
Ultimately, Frost/Nixon argues for the importance of feeling in reportage, an aspect of understanding that television is uniquely able to provide. I think this much is unarguable—as the film proves with horrific real footage of the Vietnam conflict, the sort of heartbreaking pictures that have been disallowed for every other conflict the United States has been involved in since then.
In the end, however, catharsis is not really enough, is it? We must accept that the real Nixon went unpunished for his crimes, that the Frost interviews sped up the rehabilitation of the scandal-ridden Republican Party, and that Nixon’s concept that, when the President does something, it is thus not illegal, an unpopular idea in the 1970s, has become accepted truth for subsequent US Presidents.
I think Frost/Nixon is a brilliant and timely film. I only hope it does not provide audiences with a false sense of closure for our latest scandal-ridden Presidency.