|Michael Sheen||David Frost|
|Frank Langella||Richard Nixon|
|Kevin Bacon||Jack Brennan|
|Matthew McFadyen||John Birt|
|Sam Rockwell||James Reston Jr.|
|Toby Jones||Swifty Lazar|
|Rebecca Hall||Caroline Cushing|
|Directed by||Ron Howard|
If anyone knew a thing or two about the destructive power of television, it was Richard Milhous Nixon. In the fall of 1960, he faced off against Jack Kennedy in the first presidential debates ever televised. Nixon went out the favorite, and he came in second. People who listened to the debates on the radio thought Nixon won. TV showed him pale, shifty, and sweating. He didn't understand the medium, and it bit him in the rear.
Twenty-seven years later, sadder but wiser, having spent the intervening years descending into political purgatory, rising from the dead, scaling the heights, and plunging again into disgrace as the only American president ever to resign from office, Richard Nixon again sat down to a fateful series of four television one-on-one encounters.
His opposite number this time was a young British TV personality named David Frost. Frost's reputation was primarily as a comic (That Was The Week That Was) and a talk show host. For Nixon, it was a chance to make some money (Frost paid him a staggering $600,000 for the interviews) and an opportunity to justify and rehabilitate himself in front of a national audience at the expense of a lightweight whom he could play like a fiddle. For Frost it was a shot at a journalistic coup to beef up his credentials.
Peter Morgan, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for The Queen, picked up on this story for his first stage play. It was a huge hit in London with Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen) as Frost, and Frank Langella as Nixon. The play came to Broadway with the same leads and to the same critical and popular acclaim, and now Morgan has adapted it to the screen, with Ron Howard directing and Sheen and Langella still on board. It looks like an entertainment trifecta, from history-making television to award-winning theater to cinematic Oscar bait.
Langella wasn't a shoo-in for the movie role. "The part was not mine", he said recently in a USA Today interview. Jack Nicholson was the rumored front-runner, or maybe Warren Beatty. But the film's producers came to understand that Langella's experience in the role overcame his lack of movie celebrity. "He was providing a pretty hard act to follow", Howard admitted.
Langella inhabits the pouchy skin of the man he's playing, until soon any meaningful distinction between actor and subject disappears. He lumbers along with his body hunched into a fist, he glowers from under beetling brows, his jowls droop and tremble, he dabs at his perspiring upper lip with a self-conscious finger. He embodies the deeply buried contradictions of the man, the poverty and rejection of his growing up, the sharp intelligence, the uncomfortable macho crudeness, the feckless, burning ambition, the watchful readiness to pounce, to exploit, to destroy. At one point in the interviews Nixon reflects bitterly on the way his enemies brought him down. "I gave them the sword, and they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish." And then, with unexpected candor, he adds "I guess if I'd been in their place, I'd have done the same thing."
Sheen plays Frost as a glib, clever man who combines tremendous self-confidence with the terrifying doubt that he may be in over his head. Frost committed to the interviews assuming a network would jump to pick them up. When none did, he went deep into hock to shell out most of the money himself. The other pressure on him was to stand up to Nixon, to put the hard questions in this first public interview with the man driven from office by the crimes of Watergate. As one of Frost's team, the journalist James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) says, "I'd like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had."
Much of the movie involves the behind-the-scenes maneuvering between the Frost and Nixon camps to establish the ground rules, and wring whatever turf advantages were to be wrung. Ron Howard does a brilliant job of pacing the minutiae of this jockeying process. The excellent supporting cast includes Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones for the Nixon side, and Oliver Platt and Rockwell in the Frost camp. Women hardly figure in the movie. Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) provides elegant eye candy as Frost's girlfriend, and gives Nixon a chance to ogle and to deliver the (historically accurate) quip to Frost: "Did you do any fornicating last night?" Patty McCormack, who shocked Broadway a half-century ago as The Bad Seed, has a few small moments as Pat Nixon.
But the meat of the movie is the electric mano a mano between the title characters. In the film's most powerful scene, a drink-softened Nixon calls Frost in his hotel room late on the eve of the final interview, and ruminates on their shared backgrounds as kids from the wrong side of the tracks who have had to battle the elites for everything. "The snobs look down on you", he rambles. "No matter how high we get, they still look down on us."
The score is Nixon 3, Frost 0 as they head into the final session. But that one changed everything. Nixon seems almost eager to unburden his conscience. He admits wrongdoing, and says "I let the American people down."
In a coda in which Frost pays a visit to San Clemente to say goodbye, Nixon seems almost lighthearted, unburdened by his public confession. The presidency and the republic had taken a hit, but the perpetrator felt better. And of course he'd already been pardoned by his successor. Which may or may not have been necessary. As the man himself put it, "when the president does it, that means its not illegal."
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be