Langella puts on masterful show in `Frost/Nixon'
Having Frank Langella reprise his Tony Award-winning role as Richard Nixon is a big plus in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," a fascinating look at the 1977 David Frost interview with President Nixon three years after he resigned the presidency.
It also is a plus that Peter Morgan adapted the screenplay from his stage play of the same name. Under the guidance of Howard, the film can fortify the original play by breaking out from the restrictions of a stage performance. For example, the stage version cannot capture the intimidating grand arrival of Nixon for the interviews, rumbling up to the location in a police-escorted motorcade.
Although he looks nothing like Nixon, Langella has nailed the late president's forceful voice and portrays Nixon as a sometimes bitter and unapologetic man but one who also is crafty and despite a shameful exit from the presidency still determined to leave a more positive legacy.
Going up against him is Michael Sheen as David Frost, a television personality whose efforts to sit down and grill Nixon were greeted by skepticism, especially by a media that believed a more legitimate journalist should take a crack at the former president.
Of course, the underlying issue is Watergate and the subsequent cover-up that crumbled the Nixon Administration. Could Frost get Nixon to own up to not only knowing about the cover-up but actually orchestrating some aspects of it?
Frost is savvy enough to accept that he might be considered an overmatched lightweight going up against Nixon, and recruits a couple of proven journalists - Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) - to dig up whatever information can find to hammer Nixon with potentially incriminating queries.
Nixon, meanwhile, has his own corps of advisers, led by Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), to keep him focused on remaining presidential.
It is a sad commentary that the interview is seen by Frost and Nixon and the people in each camp as a competition - a boxing or chess match - when it is supposed to be a chance to extract truthful information.
The stakes are high for both men. Frost, unable to get financial backing from the U.S. television networks, puts up a lot of his own money and more borrowed from friends to bankroll the interview without any guarantee it will be on air. For Nixon, it is a chance to redeem himself while also carrying the potential of breaking him down or making look even more vile in the eyes of the American people.
"Frost/Nixon" portrays the two men as cordial adversaries. Nixon assumes a "bring it on" confident stance - after all, despite his mortifying fall from the presidency, he is an old pro politician, able to talk his way around any tough questions. Frost seems almost too complacent - even distracted by other elements of his work - and as a result loses control of the early portions of the interview. Fortunately for him, he is able to turn things around, leading up to the final moments of the interview that initially were seen as a victory for Frost.
In the end, neither man could claim he achieved everything he wanted from the interview. Although Nixon finally admitted to making mistakes and letting down the American people, there never was a true "conviction" of his alleged crimes, nor was he willing to apologize. As for Nixon, the interview did little to improve his image. Rockwell as Reston put it best: Even to this day, any malfeasance on the part of a politician gets labled with a "gate" after it.
Reston also noted that the end result really was not a victory for Frost and company, as the lasting image of the interchange would be that of a disconsolate Nixon admitting his political career was over - a scene that even the most passionate Nixon haters might find touching.
Those expecting "Frost/Nixon" to do a hatchet job on the late former president should be surprised at Langella's portrayal of Nixon. Yes, the man had issues, and he set aside any moral or ethical standards in his desperation to make a horrible blunder go away. Yet he is seen post-interview as a gracious man when Frost stops by to bid him farewell. Nixon even with a wry smile admits his demeanor may have been all wrong for a career in politics.
The final scene tells it all: Nixon at his massive San Clemente residence, staring out at a beautiful dusk over the Pacific Ocean, not really taking it in; a man beaten down by his own obsessions.
Check out my postings on 10/02/08, October Surprise 1980 (1968) and 10/31/08, Halloween 1960. (At Discount Records, my first job in San Francisco, we had a countdown calendar leading up to impeachment and then the resignation.)