Frost/Nixon. Expertly acted, well-paced, and ultimately, pat and unsatisfying. Screenwriter Peter Morgan takes the characters of Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella) in a manner that mirrors his treatment of Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in The Queen — the upstart versus the titan, with a quest for moral concession at the end of the saga. For Queen Elizabeth, she had to change with the times and accept the sorrow of the British people over the death of Diana, and Blair helps her achieve this trek into modernity, in the process, gaining great respect for her. In Frost/Nixon, Nixon has to accept responsibility for his crimes and thus, help the American people heal, and Frost has to trap him in interview to wrangle the confession, which, of course, ultimately lessens the psychic burden both Nixon and the nation carry. For dummies in the audience, this theme is explicated by a drunken call from Nixon to Frost on the eve of their last interview (set up as an interview version of a heavyweight bout, The Thrilla’ in the Villa), a wholesale fabrication.
But Nixon had a 20% stake in the sales of the interviews. And Nixon knew as well as Frost that they couldn’t be a love letter to himself, that there had to be a draw, a teaser, a hook. So, in the interview on Watergate, he apologizes, though in dramatic, stubborn style. But he does not, as the film depicts, concede. And in the end, through their own conspiracy, Frost is lionized, Nixon starts a second comeback (as opposed to the laughable postscript of the film’s closing lines — “[Nixon] never achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved. His most lasting legacy is that, today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix ‘-gate'”), they both make buckets of dough, and television wins! A much better story, but also much harder. Much easier and more crowd-pleasing for Howard and Morgan to revise the impact of the interviews themselves, to make them a definitive win in a titanic battle of wits that finally earned Nixon the calumny he so richly deserved.
Which is nonsense.
This is not a terrible film. It’s fine. It is at about the level of a solid TV movie and about as ambitious. Moreover, the interviews themselves as depicted curiously lack the crackle of some of the better moments of the real ones, and unfortunately, offer a somber, sonorous Nixon.
I don’t want to come off as some sort of niggling prig. My discomfort with Frost/Nixon is not predicated on the fact that it is historically inaccurate. My concern is in the manner in which the writer and director chose to be historically inaccurate. For example, the fabricated drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost seems to fall within the reasonable artistic license. But the problem is that the movie created a pat, simplistic morality tale, distorting history so egregiously in service of that dramatic aim that it exceeded the admittedly blurry lines in place.
It would be akin to a writer of Bobby/Lyndon penning a script geared toward Bobby being the driver of the civil rights movement, finally impressing upon Lyndon (also drunk on a call – it’s always the old man who is drunk) the importance of completing his brother’s legacy. It could play well, it could be beautifully acted, but the historical point it serves is not only false, but utterly contradicted by the actual facts.
Indeed, a great interview with Frank Langella shows that he gets the problem:
Q. The movie does make you sympathetic to Nixon, this monster. It really makes you feel sorry for the bastard.
FL: Well, in one sentence you’ve called him a monster and a bastard. You see how totally and completely prejudiced you are?
Q: Well, you said “these two epic monsters.”
FL: Well, I meant monster in the larger sense. But that’s ingrained in you to think that way, and you don’t have any right to judge him that way. You’re not walking in his shoes. If you think Nixon is a monster and a bastard, what do you think of the presidents we’ve had since? That’s the thing: it’s very easy to use these words about this man, and very facile, because we live in a time where it’s sound-byte time. Let’s see… Richard Nixon? Monster, bastard. Anna Nicole Smith? Dumb, blonde. We just do it. We just narrow everybody down to a tiny little spectrum, and you really can’t and you really shouldn’t. I do it too, though, because it’s really fast, and it’s really quick. It would’ve been totally uninteresting of me to play him as a drunk, or as a crook. Those were two facets of a very, very complicated man, and we mustn’t forget that he was a brilliant statesman. [Nixon] was an extraordinarily intelligent man. I spent hours and hours of reading his books. His hopes and dreams for this country in foreign policy were extraordinary, and what he did in China and other places was wonderful. It would be a shame to let all that [go to waste] — history has done it, and he brought it on himself. Nixon was not destroyed by anything or anyone but himself.