Directed by Ron Howard
Ron Howard’s film of the Peter Morgan play that was a great hit on both the London and Broadway stages, is about the 1977 series of interviews between the British celebrity host David Frost and the disgraced president, three years after he resigned his office. I would love to say that “Frost/Nixon” works, but it didn’t for me, and ultimately it’s both unsettling and disappointing, for I think an interesting reason. First it’s unsettling because the film is almost word for word what we would say to (and hear from) George W. Bush, twenty years later, another failed president, so that when we see Nixon we hear Bush. For instance, it covers Nixon’s invasion of a nation that was no threat to us (Cambodia) and its aftermath (The Khmer Rouge). It deals with his coverup of the Watergate burglary (a parallel with Bush’s approval of torture and rendition). And so it’s disappointing because as much as we want to hear a confession, Nixon neither gave what we would have liked – a true mea culpa – nor by Bush’s exit interviews would he have either.
Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who did so well as Tony Blair in “The Queen,” playing this time with a dazzling smile and an open face –you can see why people responded to his lightweight questions. By 1977, though, Frost was down in the minor leagues, with a show on Australian television, and was looking for a way back; why not interview Nixon? By promising Nixon’s agent, the legendary Swifty Lazar, $600,000 for a series of interviews, he was able to get the president to agree.
Frank Langella plays Nixon, as he did on both the London and Broadway productions, and I wish I could say that he’s gotten Nixon right. But his voice is too deliberately heavy, too theatrical, when it should be that of a constipated man trying to be smooth. He has almost too much of Nixon’s hunched neck and heavy walk; there’s an element of a Saturday Night Live satire to it all.
What does work is the sequence of four interviews, where at first Nixon controls the confrontation, spinning out anecdotes so as not to answer the questions, and then – the final one – where Frost does find his voice and Nixon comes almost to a catharsis by admitting that he had broken the law. “If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Does that sound familiar? Too much so for me.