DAVE DAVIES, host:
Richard Nixon had been out of office for three years in 1977, when he did a series of TV interviews with British broadcaster David Frost. Peter Morgan wrote a play based on those interviews that first opened in London in 2006. Now Morgan has turned his play into a movie directed by Ron Howard. Film critic David Edelstein says the movie goes too far in elevating a TV show into a historic confrontation.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 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 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. Here is how the excitable Reston, fervently played by Sam Rockwell, pitches the stakes to Frost.
(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")
Mr. SAM ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) I'd like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.
Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) Of course, we'll be asking difficult questions.
Mr. ROCKWELL: Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indo-Chinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford's pardon.
Mr. SHEEN: Yes. But equally going after him in some knee-jerk way, assuming he's a terrible guy, wouldn't that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?
Mr. ROCKWELL: Right now I submit it's impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction. Pure and simple. The integrity of our political system, of democracy as an idea, entirely depends on it. And if in years to come, people look back and say it was in this interview that Richard Nixon exonerated himself, that would be the worst crime of all.
EDELSTEIN: 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.
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 tapes, 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."
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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