Richard Nixon as muse — beetle brows, ski nose and mirthless grin, made for caricature, and his rampant pathology add up to a gift for novelists and psychohistorians.
Frost/Nixon, dutifully directed by Ron Howard from screenwriter Peter Morgan's enjoyably glib play, is not about Watergate but its aftermath — the series of four televised interviews with the disgraced 37th president that British chat-star David Frost orchestrated and syndicated in the spring of 1977, a little less than three years after Nixon's resignation.
The interviews were the subject of intense interest before they occurred. The details of the deal, including Nixon's $600,000 payday, were breathlessly reported. Mike Wallace created anticipation by interviewing the interviewer Frost on 60 Minutes. Devoted largely to Watergate and including what was taken to be Nixon's apology, the first interview was among the top shows of 1977, attracting 45 million viewers. David Frye, then known as the world's greatest Nixon impersonator restaged the interview and took both parts. Frost and Nixon each produced follow-up best-sellers, with Frost's behind-the-scenes account, I Gave Them a Sword, serving as the basis for Morgan's 2006 play, a hit in London and then in New York.
A docudramatist whose screen credits include The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan conceived the Frost-Nixon interviews as a prizefight between two comeback-hungry veterans, only one of whom could win. Ever-cheerful Frost (Michael Sheen, wide-eyed and coifed to distraction) meets sonorous, gloomy Nixon (Frank Langella) for the equivalent of the pre-bout weigh-in. The former president is immune to Frost's perkiness. Chronology is tweaked to give events a sports-match tension. As soon as the cameras roll, Frost takes a wild swing, asking why Nixon didn't just destroy the incriminating tapes — and opens himself up to a bludgeoning counterattack.
Round one ends with Nixon running down the clock. In Round two, Frost attempts to ambush Nixon by surprising him with actual atrocity footage of his Cambodian invasion. Nixon ducks this roundhouse and leaves Frost hugging the ropes. It's all pretty lugubrious until the big invented scene, when the former president places a drunken call to Frost's hotel room, seeking a measure of class solidarity: "Did the snobs look down on you, too?"
In the season's current scholarly Nixonalysis, Reinventing Richard Nixon, Daniel Frick describes how Frost/Nixon's Broadway audience chuckled as Langella delivered Nixon's sound-bite justification for his abuse of power ("When the president does it, that means it's not illegal") but reserved true merriment for the follow-up line ("But I realize that no one else shares that view"), as if to acknowledge that the current White House occupant does share Nixon's view and has gone him one better.
Still, Frost/Nixon's main attraction is neither its topicality nor its historical value but Langella's re-creation of his Tony-winning performance. Langella doesn't shake his jowls or attempt Nixon's sickly smile. Ice-cold and physically imposing, the actor is a naturally menacing presence; his stooped, shambling, eye-rolling Nixon is a prehistoric beast at bay.
Langella captures something of the 1977 Nixon. As New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote at the time: "The first Frost interview made this dreadful creature seem pathetic." In his 1970 speech on Cambodia, Nixon warned that America would become "a pitiful helpless giant." Langella's performance is the lament of a man who became what he beheld.