Produced by Brian Glazer, Ron Howard, Tim Bevan, and Eric Fellner; directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play; cinematography by Salvatore Totino; production design by Michael Corenblith; costumes by Daniel Orlandi; edited by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; original music by Hans Zimmer; starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt. Color. 122 mins. A Universal Pictures release.
Frost slash Nixon or Nixon slash Frost? In a grudge match held under steamy television lights, pitting a chronically untelegenic former president against a suave, witty, exotically accented, impeccably tailored, smartly coiffured—downright Kennedyesque!—master of the medium, the outcome of the talking head-to-head can only be a foregone conclusion. In the challenger’s corner sits the unflappably affable David Frost (Michael Sheen); in the hot seat, with moist upper lip and five o’clock shadow, squirms Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella), a has-been handed a one-way ticket to Palookaville—well, San Clemente—desperately bobbing and weaving to block the Kid from landing a roundhouse left (not right) hook. Place your bets carefully, fight fans: in the year that saw Rocky(1976) win a champion’s belt at the Academy Awards, the underdog only appears to be down for the count. Though battered and bloody, he will go the distance and win the heart of the crowd. God help us, Nixon’s still the one.
Fran Langella/Michael Sheen as Nixon/Frost
OK, the punch-drunk metaphors are way overdone, but Frost/Nixon pounds home its pugilistic affinities above and below the belt: phrases like “throw in the towel,” “no holds barred,” “gloves off” pepper the dialog; the contest is shot from a ringside seat perspective, up-close and personal; and the narrative footwork keeps pace with the rhythms of a fight film, trading a three-act structure for a four-round mano a mano. The only thing missing is the babe in the bathing suit swanning by with a placard between each interview session.
Written by Peter Morgan (apt credit: The Queen, 2006) and directed by Ron Howard (apt credit: Cinderella Man, 2005), Frost/Nixon is a great opportunity to wallow in Watergate, sink into the quagmire of Vietnam, and kick around the 37th president, but what really interests the media-minded screenwriter and video-sired director is the canvas of the television screen. With another Camelot era charmer standing in for JFK, the film plays like a rematch of the 1960 Presidential debates, when the twitchy troll was iced by the cool prince. (Even the surname “Frost” is a suitably McLuhanesque calling card for a man to the medium born.) Fear not and have faith, the film assures us, television will do what the pathetic U.S. Constitution could not—put the malefactor on trial and render a just—that is, guilty—verdict, with the perp nailed in the witness chair, breaking down, confessing all, and throwing himself on the mercy of the court of Nielsen opinion.
Hollywood was not always so smitten with television, a medium usually presented in 35mm space as a sinister force corroding American democracy (see virtually any big screen meditation on the small screen from A Face in the Crowd  through The Truman Show ). Since the onset of digital media, however, the motion-picture industry has tended to look more kindly upon its former arch nemesis. As in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), which sanctified See It Now for hobbling Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Frost/Nixon credits Frost’s four ninety-minute interview shows in May 1977 with the take-down of Richard Nixon and turns the jaunty television “presenter” (as the Brits say) into a blow-dried, jet setting update on Edward R. Murrow. Frost “understood television,” the dialog informs us, and thereby became “the most unlikely of white knights” (and you thought it was Woodward and Bernstein or Judge John Sirica). With the analog box slated to enter the dustbin of media history in June 2009, Hollywood can afford a generous eulogy to the age of three network hegemony—a cartel that Frost must bypass by improvising a pioneering self-syndication deal when the networks balk at broadcasting his four-episode miniseries. (Oddly, Frost/Nixon fails to mention Frost’s first television breakthrough on this side of the pond, NBC’s That Was the Week That Was, the import that introduced Americans to British inflected satire and helped pave the way for Fab Four patter and Monty Python sillywalks. On the Sunday after JFK’s assassination, Frost hosted TW3’s most memorable telecast, a moving tribute to the president.)
After a crisp audiovisual prologue for Gen-Xers and millennials who need crib notes on the Watergate scandal, Frost/Nixon finds its better half in talk-show host hell in Australia, spouting lame stand-up lines, interviewing the Bee Gees, and shilling for escape artists. On August 9th, 1974, he tunes in to the resignation of Nixon, calibrates the global ratings, locks eyes with the visage on the video monitor, and a light bulb switches on: Nixon is his ticket back to the big time, to the best table at Sardi’s (“the place was my canteen!”), away from the cultural backwater that is the U.K. now that the Beatles have broken up, the James Bond franchise is flat-lining, and you just can’t get as far as you once could on a cute British accent. “It’s indescribable,” Frost tells his producer. “Success in America is unlike success anywhere else—and the emptiness when it’s gone.”
Frost with his researchers James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and manager John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen)
Nixon knows just how that feels. Even being bedridden with phlebitis is better than waiting for the clock to run out in sunny, sedate, mind-numbing Casa Pacifica. Like Frost, he seeks salvation and a fast track back to the winner’s circle in the East, where the action is. When Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Smith), the perfectly named ten per-center for Tricky Dick, passes along the pitch—and $600,000 bait—from “the English talk show guy,” the disgraced ex-president guy contemplates an easy payday against an opponent well below Mike Wallace’s weight class.
To cover the machinations of the Watergate cover-up and recap the interview prep sessions, Frost/Nixon dons a faux documentary mask, blending snippets of archival footage with seamlessly matched reenactments of same (John Dean testifying before the Watergate committee is real; Langella giving Nixon’s slicing-wave salute before boarding a helicopter and flying off to exile in California is not). In direct address and desaturated color registration, the actors playing the real people who served as Frost and Nixon’s corner men recite retrospective “eyewitness” recollections to provide exposition and play-by-play commentary. Frost’s trainers are James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), son of The New York Times columnist and a card-carrying Nixon hater; Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), a journalist more worried about retaining his reputation than grinding an ax into Nixon’s skull; and Frost’s factotum and producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). Nixon is backed up by former Marine officer Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a loyal aide-de-camp who shares his boss’s disdain for “hippies, dilettantes, draft dodgers” and suspicion of anything that smacks of nonnormative embellishments, emblematically Frost’s buckled Italian-made shoes. “I think a man’s shoes should have laces,” agrees Brennan, when Nixon looks askance at the un-American footwear. (Lurking in the background with a come-hither look but no speaking lines is the upwardly mobile Diane Sawyer [Kate Jennings Grant], perhaps checking out Frost for talk-show-host pointers.) Rounding out Frost’s Praetorian guard is the delectable Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), a bird whom Frost, with Bond-like insouciance, picks up in the cavernous cabin of the Concorde (“Frost—David Frost,” could be, but is not, his opening line). Actress Hall is certainly tantalizing eye candy, but she has absolutely nothing to do except hang on Frost’s arm, as if to prove, despite those Italian shoes and high tenor, that the Brit is no poof.
Like the original interviews, Frost/Nixon is a two-hander, with the actors both codependents and rivals. As Frost, Michael Sheen embraces his inner BBC-MC: the smooth as silk patter, the restless energy, the naked need for validation, and, beneath the glib effervescence, the raw ambition and sturdy spine (the man didn’t get where he got by being a twit). When producer Birt wants to sack the obnoxious Reston, Frost, knowing the value of a pain in the ass, says firmly, “he stays.” As Nixon, Langella is too tall for the role, but who cares: he’s mesmerizing. Inevitably, Langella’s interpretation is filtered through thick televisual and celluloid lenses: first, through the historical Nixon (on kinescope yammering about Republican cloth coats and a dog named Checkers; on videotape dripping flop sweat opposite a tanned Adonis) and on through years of campaign speeches, press conferences, and presidential addresses; and, second, through the backlight of comic mimicry and straight impersonations (the jowl-jiggling caricatures by David Frye, Dan Aykroyd, and dozens more [by way of intratextual contrast, Oliver Platt as Zelnick auditions his own not-bad Nixon imitation] and motion-picture performances by Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984), Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon(1995), and Dan Hedeya in Dick (1999). Langella erases all previous shadows of Nixon.Time and again, all directorHoward needs to do is lock the camera on the actor’s face and allow him to channel a man who himself seemed to be a self-caricature, famously uncomfortable in his own skin, ill at ease with strangers, trapped in a masochistic profession totally at odds with his comfort zone. As Mark Feeney speculates in Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief, it was perhaps that quality—Nixon’s out-of-his-own-body anxieties—that made him the chosen representative of “the rest of us—the great silent majority of moviegoers who don’t decorate the screen but stare at it.”
True to the bare-bones mounting of its stage play origins, Frost/Nixonconfines itself mostly to interiors: the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel suite that functions as the war room for team Frost; Nixon’s bunker in San Clemente, decorated in Early Republican Traditional; and the ranch house that serves as studio for the interviews. Though shot in ’Scope, presumably to better frame the square TV box within the celluloid vista, the cinematic style is modest and workmanlike (forgivably, however, cinematographer Salvatore Totino can’t resist a bit of Godfather-like underlighting when Nixon first lumbers into sight). Howard, whose life growing up before the cameras seems to have left him with no need to showboat behind the camera, recalls Hollywood class acts like George Stevens and William Wyler in his willingness to subordinate himself to the material at hand. Not counting his Hitchcockian cameo once removed (the casting of his brother Clint in minor roles), his main auteurist touch is the unflashy competence of a top mechanic or engineer—which might explain why Apollo 13 (1995) remains his masterpiece.
After three rounds of close quarter fighting, Frost has not laid a glove on Nixon, who plays rope a dope by filibustering on foreign policy and waxing sentimental about Trish and Julie. (On the sidelines, even Frost’s own TV crew gets choked up.) “What have I done?,” wails Frost after Nixon parries all his jabs and the financing for the project crumbles. Far behind on points, the host has one last chance to land a knockout blow.
The obligatory between-round pep talk comes from an unexpected source: Nixon, who, drunken, dials Frost to share a dark night of the Nixonian soul. Appropriately, the crucial encounter comes over the wires not face to face—it was, after all, audio recordings not images that brought down Nixon. (Indeed, the soundtrack is very clever about bringing Nixon’s image on screen onlyafter his voice has registered in off-screen space—the opening Watergate montage also rewinds the audiotape echoes of the Nixon Presidency in lieu of images that might remind us the historical figure does not look like Frank Langella.) The telephonic rant is vintage Nixon: self-pitying, delusional, bitter and insightful. In his alcoholic haze, Nixon reaches out to Frost as a brother under the Italian leather, a self-made man who must surely share his seething resentment for upper-class snobs and artsy poseurs. Later, when Frost reminds Nixon of the call, he stares back in puzzled forgetfulness—an understandable reaction given that the person-to-person sprang from Peter Morgan’s typewriter not Nixon’s bottle. Besides, the notion that Nixon would totally black out a therapy session so articulate, self-aware, and cathartic strains credulity. For all the expletives undeleted, these are not the slurred ravings of a blind drunk.
Nixon with his Marine protector, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon)
Whether Nixon was trying to buck up or psych out the enemy, Frost is energized. Cramming furiously for the final session (in a real fight film, the montage would take place in a gym to the thumping beat of a pop anthem), he plows into the minutiae of Watergate, rewinding the audiotapes, red-penciling the transcripts, and following the money. The smoking gun he will wave at Nixon concerns an early meeting with Charles Colson (Nixon’s “darkest henchman,” footnotes Reston), three days after the burglary on June 17, 1972, but, to mix a Watergate and Hitchcock metaphor, the smoking gun is a MacGuffin: the plot demands that Frost unleash a trick on Dick with the camera’s red light glowing. Confronted and pressed by a suddenly knowledgeable and aggressive prosecutor, Nixon can stonewall no more. “We got him!,” Reston exults.
But with Nixon down on his knees, Brennan breaks in and stops the taping. Frost’s corner men go ballistic, but Nixon tells Brennan he no longer wants to bear the guilt—or at least the burden of an alibi that not even he believes. Stoically—heroically?—he walks back into the lights for his last hot date with the medium that made him in 1952, unmade him in 1960, and now, in 1977, will be his confessional. Yes, he let down the American people. Yes, he realizes that his extra-Constitutional notion of presidential power is unique. Yes, he knows he will forever after bear the stain. “I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish,” says Langella-slash-Nixon, savoring the line reading. By then, not even Reston seems to relish the twist of the sword.
Culled from twenty-four hours of taping, the single shot of Nixon’s anguished face on the television monitor served as sound bite synecdoche for the marathon therapy session. In mulling “the reductive power of the close up,” Reston sees self-loathing and crushing defeat, but his hatred of Nixon blinds him to what Frost/Nixon knows: that television always lends identification and empathy. In the end, as in The Queen, the constipated stuffed shirt draws more audience sympathy than the sleek clothes horse. “The limelight can only shine on one of us—and for the other—the wilderness,” Nixon tells Frost during their bourbon soaked phone call, but the reality was that both men emerged from the ring in better shape than they went in: Frost got respect and huge ratings, Nixon confessed, a bit, the necessary step on the path to penance and forgiveness.
Or not. Given the not-so-distant historical record, and the passions still incited by Nixon Compulsive Disorder, Frost/Nixon plays as a generational Rorschach test. For those who drank in Nixon straight, the man on screen is liable to seem a watered-down version of the toxic original: Nixon Lite, without that bitter aftertaste. In a much forwarded piece on the Huffington Post, the veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew ticked off a litany of the film’s omissions and fabrications: that Nixon was more Frost’s business partner than hired talent; that he was bitter and evasive not anguished and contrite; and that, far from being a gruffly likable sad sack, he was a deeply unpleasant man whom even his dog growled at. “A dishonorable distortion of history,” is how Drew antiblurbed the latest new Nixon by way of revoking Morgan’s dramatic license. For what it’s worth, my own sense is that, judged by Hollywood’s usual fact-to-fiction balance sheet, Frost/Nixon is no more or less distortion-ridden than Milk, W., or Notorious, the biopics with which it shares a marquee.
Even so, the willful amnesia and bland misdirection in the coda is mystifying—more so than the narrative liberties, perhaps, because the final words are printed on the screen, as if emblazoned by the hand of God, and not spoken in the heat of the unfurling drama. Hailing Frost’s come-from-behind victory, Reston asserts that Nixon “certainly never achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved” and that “his most lasting legacy is that today any political wrongdoing immediately gets the suffix ’-gate’”—an obituary pronounced as gospel from a film that has itself credited Nixon with opening China and damned him for facilitating the Cambodian genocide. Nixon “never escaped controversy” and “remained largely absent from official state functions until his death of a stroke in 1994,” insists the script before the end credits roll. Controversial? Always—but Nixon was an advisor to every president after Carter and, if he were alive today, would be a welcome text messenger on Obama’s BlackBerry. In fact, by 1981, he was back in the action, at center stage, when Reagan included Nixon among a delegation of the three living ex-presidents sent to the funeral of Anwar Sadat. (Looking over at the line up of Carter, Ford, and Nixon, Senator Bob Dole cracked a classic line: “There they are—See No Evil, Hear No Evil… and Evil.”) And at Nixon’s funeral in 1994, everyone came—presidents current and former, politicians and journalists, friends and foes—some to make sure the SOB was dead, but most to let go of the hate.
Thomas Doherty is Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University.