Like the president at its center, Frost/Nixon has a difficult time being honest about itself. So it’s a useful exercise to break down what the film is and isn’t. It is not a film about how BBC celebrity interviewer David Frost drove a confession out of Richard Nixon during a 1977 sit-down interview.
It is the story about how Frost wrestled Nixon into enough of a half-assed apology to partially satisfy the American public. It is not about the most important episode of Watergate journalism. We’ve seen that film. When it was called All the President’s Men. It is a satisfactory anatomy of a widely-watched media event. It is not a “two men enter, one man leaves” confrontation, despite the film’s groin pull from trying to sell it that way.
While deservedly never cleared of Watergate, Nixon went on to be a respected voice in foreign policy, a clandestine presidential adviser, and a riser in historian presidential rankings. Frost went on to a career of PBS interviews that Americans have to mentally squint to remember. Tell me who got the better deal, again? Most of all, it isn’t a legitimate Best Picture contender. Not in a sane universe. Which means it still is one on this planet.
Of course, that’s the thing about dealing with Ron Howard films – separating the truth from the hype that inevitably accompanies them. For Howard lovers, it is not enough to have a nice film with interesting characters about a well-known event. It must be a soaring drama about a huge landmark in the history of broadcast journalism. Ever. Period. End of story. They only give out Oscars for that.
And if you fail to immediately grasp the enormous magnitude of the events found in this monumental cinematic achievement, don’t worry. Howard will do cutaway “interviews” with the characters, who will make dead certain you are completely aware of the importance of what you’re watching. If you don’t believe it, just ask no less of a historical expert than Sam Rockwell. If Howard had directed Citizen Kane, it would end with an interview of Joseph Cotton.
He would look right into the camera and tell you that yes, indeed, Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sled. And that its loss made him the man he became. And that it symbolized his vanished innocence. And that it was the single greatest sled ever made. The Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe wrote about the first time he heard the emperor’s voice, how his childhood friends made fun of it, and how in the space of one day he had gone from a deity to a human.
As the writer of the screenplay for The Queen, this seems to be Peter Morgan’s mission as he adapts his stage play – reducing even the most powerful figure into human size. Frost/Nixon’s goal is to show the power of television to level and democratize. The film gives Frank Langella the opportunity to bring his well-regarded stage performance to the screen. Film people have been looking for a reason to hand him a small trophy for a while.
This will be his best opportunity. Unlike the usual portrait of the paranoid schemer, he paints Nixon as almost fragile – a flawed man trying to outrun his misdeeds.
After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, a seemingly retiring Nixon famously told the press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet here we are, 15 years after his death, getting in a last lick. I’m not sure what this film has to say to people under 35 years of age. Some are trying to sell it as relevant to the Bush presidency. That shows the danger of doing historical analogy without a license.
Nonetheless, Frost/Nixon is a credible revisit to youth and an ardent chapter of history.