By Colin Covert
Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon lacks historical truth.
Despite a cavalcade of talent, “Frost/Nixon” is a middling thing. It began on the small screen as a series of interviews, shifted to Broadway as a drama (by Peter Morgan, screenwriter of “The Queen”), and now reappears as a film by director Ron Howard. It still feels small.
The story behind English interviewer David Frost’s televised battle of wits with ex-president Richard Nixon is presented as if it were a tale of enormous political consequence, but it passes like a string of middling anecdotes. There’s more entertainment value in watching Couric/Palin on YouTube.
Michael Sheen (“The Queen’s” Tony Blair) plays Frost, a glib, toothy bon vivant accurately described in the film as being a celebrity despite “having no particular quality.” He was well known for being well known, hosting variety shows in Australia and England, but the brass ring of American success eluded him.
He never stopped striving, however. By the mid-’70s he took his last shot at U.S. fame with an unlikely, grandiose project. He approached ex-President Richard Nixon, disgraced and sidelined from public life following Watergate, for a series of wide-ranging interviews. Nixon signed on, tempted by an unheard-of $600,000 appearance fee and the chance to repair his reputation in a high-profile public forum. Success for Frost, who personally bankrolled the show, required outfoxing Tricky Dick and getting him to finally confess his misdeeds.
It’s “Rocky” for the debate club. But there aren’t many dramatic body blows. The first hour of the film focuses on the business negotiations behind the shows, as if syndication strategies were matters of pulse-pounding excitement. We see the preparation by Team Frost (with Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt as interview researchers personally invested in nailing their opponent) and Team Nixon (with Kevin Bacon as his protective chief of staff). Papers are shuffled, documents are underlined, brows are furrowed.
And then — nothing. For the first few televised encounters, Nixon outmaneuvers Frost, offering banal anecdotes about Mao and self-justifying filibusters on Vietnam War policy. Only on the precipice of failure does Frost buckle down, do his own homework, and finally box in his slippery adversary.
Sheen plays Frost as a genial, high-living lightweight without much in the way of inner life. The film’s emotional heft is provided by Frank Langella’s Nixon. He avoids the easy choice of portraying the dishonored former president as a hissable cardboard villain. In fact, he goes too far in the opposite direction, giving Nixon sympathetic, humanizing dimensions the man never possessed in real life. Langella makes Nixon a Shakespearean creature: courtly but not warm, calculating yet needy, chafing in luxurious exile. He’s imperious, but when Frost presses him with clear evidence of his Watergate guilt, this fictional Nixon shows expressions of pained remorse that the historical Nixon never displayed.
Langella made Dracula fatally seductive when he played that role onscreen, and he does the same here. Other than some brief profanity, this Nixon is a swell guy, if a rather sad one. The vindictive, partisan, criminal impulses and thunderbolt anger that brought the real Nixon to ruin are hidden. The TV camera peered into Nixon’s soul, costing him the 1960 election after his debate with John F. Kennedy, and exposing him in the original Frost interviews. As the real Nixon rationalized his actions in 1977, viewers saw a man for whom lying was an instinctual imperative, like salmon swimming up waterfalls to spawn before they die.
Ron Howard is too nice a guy to comprehend the cruelty that coexisted with Nixon’s formidable intellect, so he becomes a co-conspirator in romantic revisionism. Poor history, and weak drama.