I mistrusted Nixon from first sight. He just looked shifty. Something about the eyes, the bearing... I could never understand how the American electorate could have chosen him over McGovern. I could never understand how the man could have been trusted by enough voters to be re-elected for a second term. Come to think of it, I could also never understand how Reagan could have been elected, then re-elected. Not to mention the current, soon to be former occupant of the White House. I still can't het my head around the Reagan hagiography. It was the Reagan policies, far more than Nixon's, that brought us to our present plight.
All of which brings me to Frost/Nixon, the movie. It's one terrific piece of work, not least because it makes us believe in the power as well as the pathos of the only man ever to be compelled to resign from the American presidency. Frank Langella turns in a magnificent performance. At first sight, because of the physical differences, I had doubts that he could bring it off; I kept seeing the real Nixon--or my clear memory of his face--and making the comparison. But Langella moved me rapidly beyond that doubt and had me convinced by the intensity of suppressed emotion, the commanding rhetorical skill and, yes, the shiftiness he managed to convey. By the same token, Michael Sheen was a pitch-perfect David Frost, at once cocky and self-assured, dapper and glib, at times impish and narcissistic, yet proving eventually capable of serious concentration, matching wit and intellectual intensity with that of an old pro. I had seen Sheen previously in his excellent portrayal of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, and was equally impressed. The supporting cast was also impeccable, especially Kevin Bacon as the steely, protective Nixon aide, Jack Brennan.
The success of the movie clearly, depended on the reconstruction of the famous interview, presented as a a battle in which the heavyweight Nixon, in the first two rounds, was able easily to toss the seeming lightweight Frost around the ring. His politician's skill in taking a question and turning it to his advantage left Frost gaping in amazement and grasping for something solid to hold on to. This Nixon managed to look, well presidential. Frost looked like the talk show host he was, out of his depth in challenging this titan. The turning point--brilliantly captured in the film and presumably based on the actual fact--was a late-night telephone call to Frost, in his Beverly Hills hotel suite, from a different Nixon, one softened up by a few too many shots of bourbon and ready to reveal his vulnerability--a sense of social insecurity, victimhood and self-pity. If we're to believe the story the director, Ron Howard, tells, Nixon later had no recollection of this call, but it gave Frost the edge for the third and last round of the interview.
The subject, here, was Watergate, and Frost came armed with information from the Oval Office tapes that left Nixon bereft of prevarications and confronted him with the unpalatable truth that had destroyed his presidency. Langella and Sheen play out this act with devastating drama, switching roles from victor to vanquished and vice versa. To watch this Nixon collapse into defeat and to be brought to admit to the historic consequences of his actions and his betrayal of the trust of the American people is to begin to understand the tragic complexity of the man and even to sympathize with his downfall. In a poingant final scene, we end up aching for the man we always thought to have despised.
It's a compelling story, superbly told. Despite the fact that we know the outcome in advance--if only for having seen so many teasers in the television ads--there's not a moment in the movie where the attention wanders for lack of suspense or visual interest, and the dialogue never loses its confrontational edge. And then, too, the history lesson is as valuable and relevant today as it was in its own time: the lies and deceptions to which we have been subjected in the interest of political advantage in the past few years have proved no less damaging to our national integrity that were Nixon's. "Frost/Nixon" comes as a reminder--as though we needed it--of the urgent need for a radical change in the way we do our business as a country. The kind of deception, obsessive secrecy and obfuscation that characterized the Nixon presidency have brought us once again to the brink of disaster. It's time for some transparency, honesty, and fearless truth-telling. I'm hoping that our soon-to-be President Obama will be up to the task of putting us back on track in the coming year.