'Frost/Nixon': The Camera Never Lies

Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon i i

hide captionNot a crook? Frost/Nixon makes it seem like the ex-president admitted more than he actually did.

Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures
Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon

Not a crook? Frost/Nixon makes it seem like the ex-president admitted more than he actually did.

Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures

In the film of his play Frost/Nixon, screenwriter Peter Morgan elevates the televised 1977 interviews that Richard Nixon did with British host David Frost into a momentous event in the history of politics and media.

As the film opens, Nixon, played by Frank Langella, and Frost, played by Michael Sheen, have one huge thing in common: They each need a showbiz comeback, and they each need money, too: Nixon is paid an unprecedented $600,000.

But Nixon's object is to redeem himself — or, failing that, run out the clock without admitting anything. Frost's is to get Nixon to say, in essence, that he was in fact what he'd assured the American people he wasn't (and would never, thanks to Gerald Ford, be convicted of being): a crook.

Morgan frames the whole spectacle as a championship-boxing match with coaches in each man's corner. And there's a Rocky redemption element, too: Will the lightweight playboy Frost finally get serious, and cram for the final interview on Watergate, and score a knockout? Or will he let Nixon talk circles around him and win on points?

In the theater, Frost/Nixon had the trappings of a big deal: Langella's reverberant presence; a sardonic narrator in the journalist James Reston, Jr., who did research for Frost; and a bank of monitors that created a tension between the live performance and its video translation.

At the time there was a burning subtext: The George W. Bush administration was still at the height of its powers, and facing accusations of abuse of authority — accusations that didn't seem to ruffle the president. Here was Nixon standing in, and being called on the carpet.

The film of Frost/Nixon is brisk and enjoyable, but it doesn't have the same kind of punch. It's impersonally directed by Ron Howard, who seems more taken with celebrity-worship than politics. And even as Howard overinflates the outcome, it doesn't feel especially consequential.

Now, how could Nixon possibly exonerate himself with all the Watergate tapes' evidence against him? He was already dead in the water. And why should we care, at this late date, that Frost salvaged a minor TV career by getting Nixon to acknowledge, after hours of prodding, that he "let the country down?"

As then TV critic Clive James wrote, Nixon implied that he let Americans down chiefly by, quote, "allowing a silly little mistake to deprive them of his services." Morgan, with selective editing of the transcript, makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to own up to more than he actually did.

But the original Frost-Nixon Watergate interview is now on DVD from Liberation Entertainment, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in Nixon's every interminable, roundabout utterance.

As in Morgan's terrific screenplays for The Queen and the HBO movie Longford, there is a larger theme: the collision between venerable authority figures and a modern media that, in their view, cheapens and distorts everything they stand for. Does the camera trivialize — or does it pick up truths the human eye rarely sees as starkly? Did it caricature Nixon, who loathed it, or penetrate to his soul?

It's hard to say in Frost/Nixon, since Frank Langella's Nixon is overscaled. Langella gave a haunted, moving performance last year in the neglected film Starting Out in the Evening, and on Broadway it made sense that his booming, stoop-shouldered Nixon had an almost Shakespearean presence.

Here, though, the gestures seem too worked-out, the delivery too theatrical. When in the actual interview Frost read aloud from the Nixon White House transcripts, Nixon's eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In Frost/Nixon, Langella plays it as tragedy: His heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss.

It's too bad that what comes out of his mouth are Nixon's puny dodges. It's hard to turn a political footnote into Richard III.

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