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Tanned, Rested, Tormented, and Repressed

Frost/Nixon, Dir. Ron Howard, Now Playing

Earlier this year, when a gaggle of historians voted George W. Bush the worst president in American history (and that was before the economic melt-down), surely one of the shades smiling on the other side of the veil belonged to Richard Nixon. Nixon oversaw the bloody prolongation of the Vietnam War, carpet-bombed much of Southeast Asia, and viciously abused presidential power. In a time of painful social and political change he exploited the nation’s divisions rather than healing them.

Michael Sheen as Frost, a lightweight David going up against a ruthless Goliath. Photos © Universal Pictures.
Michael Sheen as Frost, a lightweight David going up against a ruthless Goliath. Photos © Universal Pictures.

Moreover, he enjoys the distinction of being the only U.S. president to resign from office. A cascade of revelations that began with an attempted burglary of Democratic National Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building eventually forced him out over his administration’s extensive use of illegal wiretaps, slush funds, and “dirty tricks” against political enemies. When it comes to bad presidents, he’s hard to top.

Frost/Nixon brings Tricky Dick back to life and invites us to take another look at him and his misdeeds. It’s neither an indictment nor an exoneration, but an eloquent exploration of the interplay of personality and power, wants and needs, integrity and ambition. It’s beautiful, disciplined, consummately well-acted, and unexpectedly moving.

After Nixon resigned in 1974, he and his circle were determined to vindicate him and return him to public life. Soon after taking office, former Vice President Gerald Ford preemptively pardoned his predecessor of any crimes the disgraced president might have committed in office—a move that cheated the nation of a full accounting and allowed Nixon to continue insisting he’d done nothing wrong.

During that time, television personality David Frost also desperately wanted to make his way back into the spotlight. The modishly long-haired Brit had achieved fame as a celebrity interviewer, but by the mid 1970s he’d lost his American franchise and was reduced to hosting a variety show in Australia.

So when Frost proposed to televise a multi-hour interview with Nixon in 1977, both men had a lot to gain. For the ex-president it was a chance to remind America of his many achievements—the opening of China, détente with the Soviet Union—and make the case that Watergate amounted to nothing worse than misjudgment. For Frost there was the prospect of huge ratings and a chance to show he had real TV gravitas. Yet, Frost knew too well that his reputation as a lightweight would be sealed if he failed to crack Nixon’s claims of innocence.

Frost/Nixon is about the duel that ensued—Frost desperate to win some kind of admission from Nixon, the cunning ex-president determined to stick to his talking points. And once again screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Last King of Scotland) demonstrates that a well-crafted depiction of the intimate dynamics of power—personal, social, political—can pack more excitement than dozens of pointless car chases and shoot-outs.

The movie is based on Morgan’s 2006 stage play of the same name, with the two stars of the stage version reprising their roles. Frost is played by Michael Sheen, whose glittering eyes and nervous mouth capture Frost’s ambition, blithe lack of interest in politics, and belief in entertainment as an end in itself. (“He’s a man with no political convictions whatsoever,” another character observes, “but he understands television.”)

Frank Langella as Nixon: Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?
Frank Langella as Nixon: Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved?

An international playboy and fame junkie, Frost may be something of a twat, but we feel his growing terror as he sinks everything he has into what increasingly looks like a losing proposition. He discovers that he and his team of researchers (played with intensity and a splash of dark comedy by Matthew MacFayden, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell) are way out of their league in a contest with one of America’s most successful and ruthless politicians. “No holds barred, eh?” Nixon says to Frost early on. “No holds barred.” And he means it.

Then there is Frank Langella as Nixon. With his V-for-victory arm-waving and quivering jowls, Nixon was always easy to caricature, but Langella inhabits the man rather than aping him. Langella allows us to get inside Nixon, even pity him, without for a moment absolving him. The close-ups of Langella/Nixon’s face when he confronts, at least momentarily, what he has done are breathtaking. You could watch three hours of Frank Langella thinking about Watergate and not be bored for a minute.

With a subtlety he’s not usually known for, director Ron Howard alerts us that we’re watching a battle that’s between more than two men. It’s the overconfident future versus the embittered past, liberated longhairs versus their close-cropped, straitlaced elders, traditional power politics versus the image-driven media circus.

In that respect Frost/Nixon really tells the story of a kind of Oedipal struggle. And like any Oedipal drama, it derives much of its power from the fact that each side of the conflict, though determined to win, isn’t entirely sure he deserves to. Frost knows he’s second-rate—does he really want to humiliate one of the 20th Century’s greatest statesmen? And much as Nixon yearns to “move back East” from California (his euphemism for a return to political power), he can’t entirely repress the knowledge that he has done wrong.

While his intellectual boxing match with Frost keeps the film moving, what makes Frost/Nixon great is the drama of Nixon trying to come to terms with his own conscience, even though this occurs almost entirely below the surfaces we’re shown.

Some have complained that the film is guilty of being too sympathetic to a man who was, after all, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. This confuses understanding with complicity, a symptom of the impoverished imagination that regards any recognition of someone’s humanity as morally equivalent to cheering him on. For those who find comfort in melodrama and the most simplistic hero-villain labels—that is, in the pablum Hollywood has been forcefeeding us for decades—real drama can’t help but seem threatening. Hate Nixon all you want, but he is nonetheless a genuine tragic figure. And as Frost/Nixon makes clear, his tragedy flows as much from the immensity of his crimes as from his crippled psyche and the inadequacy of his repentance.

What’s interesting to ponder is the 21st Century equivalent of the Frost-Nixon encounter. We can readily imagine George W. Bush going on TV in a few years to defend his record, seated across from some Republican rent boy of the Sean Hannity variety. Harder to picture is Bush feeling, let alone expressing, any remorse for what he’s done to his country and the world. By sparing Bush the impeachment or other form of public shaming he’s entitled to, we have perhaps cheated him as well as ourselves of a much needed chance at redemption.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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