The fact that the United States is a forgiving nation is certainly confirmed by movies about Richard Nixon. First Robert Altman allowed him a measure of admittedly zany self-justification in “Secret Honor.” Then Oliver Stone, of all people, painted a surprisingly sympathetic portrait in his 1995 biopic. And now Ron Howard, who recently made an Internet commercial for Barack Obama and might be expected to be hostile, gives the reclusive ex-president a touch of not just obtuseness but wounded dignity in his slick and satisfying filmization of Peter Morgan’s play about the effort that British talk-show host David Frost made to elicit a confession and apology for Watergate from him in the series of interviews he conducted in 1977.
Morgan, of course, is adept at molding recent history into the stuff of good confrontational drama. He wrote “The Queen,” for which Helen Mirren deservedly won an Oscar playing Elizabeth II as she learned to respect the judgment of recently-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) in the aftermath of Princess Di’s death. Sheen’s on hand here too, as Frost, and he does an excellent job of capturing the man’s combination of professional cunning, breezy ambition and surprising principle as he struggles to secure financial backing for the interviews and arrange distribution when the networks decide against broadcasting them. (Eventually he puts his own credit on the line, and ultimately works out a syndication deal.)
But just as Frost was in Nixon’s shadow (though not the five-o’clock variety that ruined his appearance in the first debate with Kennedy), Sheen is dominated by Frank Langella as Nixon. The veteran actor is enjoying what amounts to a professional Indian summer during the autumn of his career, having received justifiable kudos last year for his superbly understated turn as failing writer seduced by a young admirer in “Starting Out in the Evening” and now matching it with this magisterial turn as the disgraced but unbowed former president. Langella doesn’t really look like Nixon any more than Philip Baker Hall did in “Honor,” though he’s certainly a closer approximation than Anthony Hopkins was. And he comes across as smoother and more confident than the real article.
But what Langella is offering isn’t mimicry but a subtly tragicomic gloss on the historical figure, which is entirely in line with the attitude of Morgan’s script. The perspective it takes is that Nixon was a man with a perpetual inferiority complex and a total inability to connect with others on a human level, shown in his uniformly unsuccessful efforts to make small talk without saying something rude or embarrassing. But it’s implied that he turned this into an asset of sorts that would keep others off balance in what Nixon saw as a continuous game of political and personal one-upsmanship. In fact, the structure of “Nixon/Frost” presents the interviews as a sort of gladiatorial combat of wits in which either the interviewer or the interviewee will emerge victorious. Nixon says as much to Frost, laying down the challenge in especially brutal form during a drunken late-night telephone call in which he tells the Englishman that under the skin they’re in the same boat—both of them men who’ve been treated contemptuously by their social betters and trying to outdo those who have disrespected them.
Of course that sequence, and others, are invention, and “Nixon/Frost” will undoubtedly be criticized for its alterations and additions to the historical record. But the criticism is off-base. This isn’t a documentary, but a dramatic interpretation that plays with the “facts” to get at deeper truths. And on that ground it’s a success, and more importantly, an enjoyable riff that engagingly mixes recreation and imagination and is elevated above stunt status by two superb performances, even if Ron Howard’s able but frequently prosaic treatment (including some direct-to-camera observations from characters other than the leads) doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities it affords.
And while Langella and Sheen are the main reasons to see “Nixon/Frost,” they aren’t the whole show. They get expert support from the rest of the cast. On the Frost side, the most notable are Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr., the researchers he hires, the former more professionally attuned to television needs and the latter the irate citizen demanding that the interviews serve as the trial the American people were robbed of, and Rebecca Hall as a girl Frost meets while jet-setting and takes onto his team. On Nixon’s team are Kevin Bacon, as his protective aide Jack Brennan, and Toby Jones as his slimily effective agent “Swifty” Lazar.
The picture comes in the glossy packaging typical of Howard’s films, with a production design by Michael Corenblith and art direction by Brian O’Hara and Gregory Van Horn that capture the period without exaggeration (helped by the use of many original locations) and ace cinematography by Salvatore Totino.
“Nixon/Frost” manages the difficult feat being either too harsh or too kind. Admirers of the ex-president will find that rather than savaging the ex-president, it paints him as an odd, pathetic figure, more worthy of pity than contempt. And those who continue to loathe Tricky Dick should appreciate its mixture of seriocomic criticism and gentle ribbing. It helps to have some knowledge of the man’s entire career, including the disastrous last chapter, to appreciate the picture fully, but even that isn’t essential to one’s enjoyment, because the movie works simply as a battle of wills between two flawed but fascinating men. One that anybody should enjoy seeing play itself out.