Richard Nixon was perhaps the most bizarre figure to ever occupy the presidency of the United States, and especially an aberration in the televized era. That he could lose the presidency once primarily due to that oncoming omnipresent fixture of American life, the television set, speaks to the man's knowledge of what had done him in. He knew he was, almost hilariously, the anti-political animal that a John F. Kennedy was. It was not that he was dumb, or particularly more treacherous than most politicians who attain that most noxiously overused phrase mistakenly reserved for highly ambitious rulers of the world, “greatness.” He was simply all wrong for politics. The moment Nixon endeavored to appear and sound respectable and earnest, many people assumed he was lying to them. Words as innocuous as, “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” spilling forth from his glistening-from-perspiration lips, wreathed in his eerily ominous bass voice, made people grimace and groan. Nixon was actually quite bright, especially for an American president of the latter half of the twentieth century—perhaps another, more underappreciated reason he still sticks out today—and constantly made notes to himself to correct this deficit of charisma and manufactured affinity many successful national hucksters respectively employ and engender. In his first term as president, he would tirelessly scribble such embarrassing instructions in self-help as, “Add element of lift to each appearance. Understanding the young... Lift spirit of people—Pithy, memorable phrases.” Nixon knew how the game was played, especially in the era of television—he had once been its chiefest victim, after all—and he desperately wanted to connect with the people through the art of appealing sloganeering and pandering.
With Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard has created another monument to ahistorical sophistry, much like his A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which both wildly distorted true history to serve artistically meager ends of making one character wholly “heroic” while, in the latter case, libelously casting one figure as a loathsome villain. Howard's movies are so impersonal, so slick and inconsequential, that his repetitious bludgeoning of the audience with his subjects' importance is not only alienating, but at this juncture downright comical. Frost/Nixon is based on a stage play, originating in concept from a series of interviews three years after Nixon resigned from office, with the Englishman David Frost. The film is not interested in truly excavating the putrid ugliness of paycheck journalism at the pathetic story's heart—Nixon was paid $600,000 for the interviews, with a third of that up front, and contractually guaranteed twenty percent of all profits derived from the show's exhibition, the latter point being completely lost by Morgan's condescending screenplay.
That is the strategy Morgan and Howard pursue, from the beginning to the conclusion: obfuscation, dishonest revisionism and mischaracterization. How ironic that they doubtless would see in Nixon the very malfeasance of which they are historically and artistically guilty. Why shy away from the ignominiously venal networking between Morgan and Howard's faux pairing of David (Frost) and Goliath (Tricky Dick)? It would deprive them of ensuring that the audience is assuredly relating to Frost as a vicarious interrogator on behalf of virtue and justice when he attempts to slay the demon in their extended boxing match. And Howard does portray the Frost/Nixon interviews as contests of boxing, with two massive personalities dueling. While Howard petulantly strives to make his uncomplicated documentation of pugnacious pugilism, Morgan's screenplay affords Frank Langella's Nixon with a feasible melancholia that treads dangerously close to sloppily sentimentalizing the thirty-seventh president. Moments of loneliness and paranoia unsurprisingly occupy much of Nixon's lackluster post-presidential routine, and Morgan and Howard delineate his fallen star's trajectory through speaking engagements and most confidently in a boozy phone conversation that is probably the film's most curiously efficacious moment.
The performances of Frost/Nixon have received great attention, but they are not especially impressive. Langella as Nixon has the juicy, more carefully modulated part with which to work, but many of his acting choices are either pedestrian or merely adequate. Anthony Hopkins's searing interpretation surpassed imitation; like the Oliver Stone film in which it appeared, it made an embellishment out of not solely Nixon but the “Nixon era” itself—erecting an epic Shakespearean and Marlovian tragedy out of a time, place and man that is effulgent and glowing in its resonance. Langella's hangdog weariness juxtaposed with his Nixon's fits of hysteric yelling recalls some kind of fleeting, off-kilter confluence of Robert Mitchum, Walter Matthau and Al Pacino. However, the film's most perspicuous vacuum is in Michael Sheen's thoroughly uninteresting and inauthentic performance as Frost. Sheen plays Frost as a breathlessly boyish lightweight—and the turn is a total failure as a result. Lost is Frost's public persona, doubtless exaggerated and affected for consumption, of the professorially languorous, vaguely captious purveyor of the postulations of the intelligentsia.
It is oddly fitting that so many of the easily researched factoids of the Frost/Nixon interviews are wholly disregarded, as the entire conformation of the film, and probably the stage play, are in essence a half-truth. Howard is determined to depict these confrontations as the culmination of the entire time period in large part defined by the former president. They were, however, while slightly interesting, little more than one opportunistic figure cashing in on the opportunism of another. Probably unwittingly, Morgan and Howard have essayed the cynical handling of national disgrace as a form of entertainment.
Unfortunately, the screenwriter and director seem incapable of not twisting the facts of the interviews to service their lusterless agenda. In one pivotal moment of the film, Nixon describes himself as “the last casualty of Vietnam”—which would be an intolerable example of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement if it were true. The actual transcript reads, “Frost: ...[P]erhaps you were the last American casualty of the Vietnam War.” To which Nixon seemingly unthinkingly mumbled, “A case could be made for that, yes.” It may seem like a fairly small detail, but it is microcosmic of the artless efforts of legerdemain that characterizes Frost/Nixon, from the dishonest visual conception of the interviews, with the camera inching closer to the two subjects' countenances, to the trite exploration of the rather unexceptional link between them, which may be best understood as an interdependence.