Battle of the Foreheads

Frost/Nixon reviewed.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (Universal), Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play about the historic 1977 television interviews between the glib British journalist and the disgraced ex-president, might have punched up its box-office appeal by renaming itself Frost vs. Nixon. Taking its cues from Rocky rather than All the President’s Men, Morgan’s compact, satisfying drama presents presidential interviewing as a gladiatorial event. Howard’s camera looks on with almost unseemly intimacy as these two intelligent, neurotic, thoroughly self-obsessed men duck, feint, and jab at each other in an attempt, respectively, to get at the truth and to tell as little of it as possible.

Nixon sat with Frost for a total of 28 hours of interviews, but as per their contractual agreement, it was only in the last two days that they approached the heart of the matter: the Watergate burglary and the ensuing cover-up. (This portion of the real Nixon/Frost interviews has just been released on DVD.) Frost’s background as a lightweight celebrity journalist in the United Kingdom, along with his decidedly un-American proposal to pay Nixon for an interview, left the former president and his handlers convinced that this was a reputation-saving puff piece in the making. Instead, after letting Nixon hedge and pontificate his way through the first few interviews, Frost nailed him to the wall on Watergate, eliciting the closest thing Nixon would ever make to a confession of wrongdoing—not to mention the more chilling moment in which the former president made the now-famous assertion, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Frost/Nixon tells the story not only of this journalistic rumble in the jungle, but of the months of power-jockeying, fund-raising, and test prep that went into it. Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and The Last King of Scotland as well as the British TV drama The Deal, has made a specialty out of imagining what powerful political figures (Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair, Idi Amin) are like behind closed doors, and while his plots tend to be heavy on symbolism (that slaughtered stag in The Queen came in awfully handy), his dialogue shows a keen political intelligence.

Really, though, Frost/Nixon’s best reason for existence is to preserve the two acting showcases at its center. Frank Langella re-creates his Tony Award-winning role as Nixon. It’s a strange beast of a performance: Langella, a solid, lumbering man, doesn’t especially resemble the rodentlike Nixon, nor does he impersonate that famous voice with Rich Little-esque accuracy. But Langella feels his way into the black hole of Nixon’s inner life so fearlessly that you worry for the actor’s sanity. His Nixon is less a shrew than a wounded bear, pitiable and yet formidable. Michael Sheen, who also originated his role onstage, gives a less showy but equally fine performance as the ambitious, insecure, compulsively charming David Frost. He manages to show how overmatched Frost was in those early interviews (when sinking down in his chair as Langella dominates him, Sheen looks like Dan Quayle in the 1988 debates) while making his ninth-inning rally seem both plausible and exhilarating.

To prep him on the details of Nixon’s life and career, Frost hires a research team: political journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and Nixon-obsessed author James Reston (Sam Rockwell). This Laurel and Hardy-like pair watches from the sidelines as Frost screws up repeatedly during the taping, too self-satisfied to learn from his mistakes but careerist enough to realize that he’s sinking fast. The scene in which Frost finally buckles down and dedicates himself to the preparation process is thrilling if, like me, you’re a sucker for a good riffling-through-the-archives montage. (All the President’s Men and Shattered Glass both had great ones.)

Frost/Nixon’semotional climax is, in my view, the script’s weakest moment. On the eve of those last two crucial interviews, Nixon makes a drunken late-night phone call to Frost in his hotel room and feeds him the oldest line in the serial-killer-vs.-cop playbook: Deep down, you and me, we’re the same. Langella makes the most of this booze-sodden monologue, but its central premise—that Nixon and Frost shared an insecurity about social class that fueled their drive to succeed—seems more British than American: Wasn’t Nixon’s persecution complex far too vast to be reduced to class anxiety? If our 37th president has proved such an enduring subject for on-screen fictions (see Mark Feeney’s 2004 book, Nixon at the Movies), it’s precisely because we can never finally fathom his bottomless pathologies. If we did, we wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Slate V: The critics’ takes on Frost/Nixon, Cadillac Records, and Nobel Son