In March 1977, almost three years after Richard M. Nixon became the only U.S. president forced to resign from office, the British television personality David Frost spent nearly two weeks interviewing him for American television. In 2006, the British playwright Peter Morgan dramatized the preparation, the deal-making and the taping of the now famous interviews. His play, “Frost/Nixon,” a critical and popular success in London and on Broadway, has come to the screen under the direction of the veteran filmmaker Ron Howard.
Almost halfway into the film, as Nixon (Frank Langella) arrives for the first interview session, one of Frost’s researchers, James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), watches the ex-president through a window. “I’ve written four books about him, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen him in the flesh,” says Reston. “He’s taller than I imagined.” A minute later, standing face-to-face with the man, a mesmerized Reston stares silently at Nixon. Having declared that he will not shake the hand of a man he despises, Reston does just that when the president greets him.
The film’s audience can understand Reston’s dilemma. Despite all that we have come to know of Tricky Dick— his abuse of presidential power, his wiretapping of his enemies and his attempts to cover up the high crimes for which he was impeached—Nixon still comes across in the film as “taller than we imagined.” His intellect, his political savvy, his ability to intimidate lesser mortals and his easy manipulation of any conversation demand our respect, however reluctantly given. In Frank Langella’s hands, Nixon comes across as a lion of a man, brutal when in power, fiercely defensive when cornered. Can this lion be tamed?
The interviews resemble boxing matches between Nixon the political heavyweight and Frost, his unimpressive opponent. At one point, Nixon gets pugilistic advice from his post-resignation chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), who coaches him to “control the space. Don’t let him in.” Likewise, Frost’s coaches tell him: “Keep your distance till the taping begins. Don’t engage. You’re in there with a major operator.” Up to the final interview, the two remain locked in verbal combat. Frost tells Nixon, “Only one of us can win.” Nixon: “I shall come at you with everything I’ve got. I’m going to be focused and ready for the battle.”
The first three interview sessions are seen as disastrous for Frost because Nixon manages to intimidate him even before the taping begins. To Frost’s embarrassing questions, Nixon offers rambling reminiscences and other diversionary tactics. The sessions prove particularly frustrating to Reston, the journalist who had agreed to participate in the production only if it would “give Nixon the trial he never had,” making him admit his guilt and apologize to the American people for betraying their trust. Reston’s hopes appear to be dashed until the night before the last interview and a fateful telephone conversation between the two combatants.
In the last half-hour of the film, the suspense of the contest builds to a powerful climax. In the final interview, armed with previously unknown information that Reston has unearthed among the tapes of Nixon’s conversations with one of his Watergate co-conspirators, Charles Colson, Frost moves in for the kill. The cameras also close in on Nixon’s face; he is betrayed by what one person later calls “the reductive power of the close-up.”
Ron Howard makes exciting use of close-ups and quick-cut editing throughout the film, keeping the mental battlefield constantly energized. Not only during the interviews but also in the heated arguments between Frost and his production staff and researchers, the camera is in constant motion, moving from face to face and angle to angle, frequently changing points of view. Except for the scenes at Nixon’s San Clemente estate, the palette throughout most of the film employs dark browns and black, keeping the mood of the story heavy and even menacing in spots.
Howard and his fellow producers imported much of the play’s talent. Frank Langella, who won the 2007 Tony award as Best Actor for his Broadway performance, and Michael Sheen repeat their roles as Nixon and Frost; Peter Morgan has reworked his script for the screenplay. Langella’s performance avoids anything like the standard stand-up impersonations of Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon. But with his hunched shoulders, his swinging arms, his heavy gait, his nervous mouth and, most of all, his growling bass voice, Langella conjures a frighteningly recognizable figure from one of our country’s darker moments.
Michael Sheen does not succeed as well in his representation of David Frost. While Sheen might have managed to impersonate him onstage, in the closer view of the camera, he does not resemble Frost, either in appearance or in personality. Even as others in the film describe Frost as a slick, shallow entertainer more suited to be a game show host than one who interviews ex-presidents, Sheen comes across as refined, polished and emotionally intelligent. The inclusion of the character of Caroline Cushing, a lovely young woman whom Frost meets on the flight from London to America and takes with him to California, serves no recognizable purpose in the narrative other than to document Frost’s reputation as a womanizer, meanwhile wasting the considerable talents of newcomer Rebecca Hall.
The film is also diminished by the fact that outside the interviews themselves, much of the dialogue and many of the scenarios—including Nixon’s late-night telephone call—did not actually occur, turning parts of the film into political fiction rather than historical drama. For a more factual, detailed account of the proceedings (and a good read), see James Reston’s The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews (Harmony, 2007).
“Frost/Nixon” closes with the relatively accurate observation that after the interviews, Richard Nixon “remained largely absent from official state functions until his death, of a stroke, in 1994.” Yet Nixon lives on in the political mythology of our nation as a man who, despite the many accomplishments of his administration, “let the American people down,” as he confesses in that final interview. By all measures, he lost the boxing match. Frost, whose professional reputation soared as a result, may be considered the winner. But the real victory belongs in another realm, wherever truth and justice reside and continue to offer us hope that every now and then, the arrogance and dishonesty of the powerful will not prevail.
From the archives, the editors on the Frost/Nixon interviews.