The other day I watched Frost/Nixon, the 2008 film adapted from the 2006 play adapted from, well, the 1977 bit of history. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their Broadway performances as David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, working out their divergent fates in the series of on-camera interviews that the British television personality set up with Nixon three years after he resigned from the presidency.
I wasn’t too blown away by the movie but think it’s worth seeing for several reasons. First, I’m in favor of anything that gets a person thinking about an important historical event or personality. This, the movie does. It suggests the complex emotional currents swirling around in the aftermath of Watergate, as a chain of ridiculous and unnecessary crimes brought down the entire inner circle of the White House and prompted the most powerful man in the nation to flee ignominiously rather than face impeachment or say what had happened—what he had done—while he was in office.
Yes, the ignominy of Richard Nixon’s end was astonishing. More to the point, his furtive escape from the machinery of justice left the American people full of frustration, disappointment, and hostility. They were entitled to something more and better from their leader. Nixon’s violation of their contract left them degraded and cheated. They watched powerlessly as Nixon climbed into his presidential helicopter (which belonged to them, by the way) and flew away from blame. The film doesn’t really do justice to these precipitating events and their effects on the public, but it channels enough of the flavor of this peculiar historical moment to give viewers the idea.
Second, Michael Sheen is brilliant as David Frost, depicted here as a benign, happy-go-lucky risk-taker. Now something of a British national treasure (the Australian-born Frost was knighted and is still working at age 73), he was then at risk (we are to believe) of becoming a nobody. Adrift professionally, Frost latches on to the desperate and expensive scheme of interviewing Nixon as a way to save himself from oblivion and irrelevance. Bleak prospects and a yen for respectability drive both characters into a wary relationship and a mediated struggle for supremacy. Will the seemingly careless Frost manage to wrest anything valuable from his cagey and formidable adversary? Frost’s success in doubling down at a critical juncture and exacting admissions from Nixon that ostensibly relieve a troubled nation makes this the ultimate Brit feel-good movie.
Frank Langella’s Nixon is evocative enough to send you off on a quest for vestiges of the real man, and this is the final reason the film is worth viewing. The question of Nixon’s role in history is essentially a question of personality, a topic this film treats inconclusively. Yet even its cursory sketch of Nixon’s discordant makeup raises questions that Americans will be debating for years to come. Curiosity sent me to YouTube, where, for a time, footage from the original interviews was on view. The memory of Nixon assessing his own failings will stay with me a long time. It’s compelling stuff.
The Political Animal at Rest #1 (on the 1942 Capra film Meet John Doe)