No matter how you look at it, there is no way to sex up a description of Frost/Nixon. At best you could say it’s a battle of wits between a disgraced American President and a wily British entertainer. That sounds vaguely like a dominatrix movie, doesn’t it?
But unappetizing introduction apart, you cannot deny that this is truly an amazing movie – my personal favorite of all the movies in contention for the Best Motion Picture of the Year at the Academy Awards this year. Of course, it’ll be a miracle if it wins anything given the buzz surrounding the other nominees, but it’s true all the same – Frost/Nixon deserves every bit of its praise.
Based on the 1977 interview of President Richard Nixon by British “entertainer” David Frost, his first after his resignation in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Frost/Nixon makes for an unlikely thriller. But as we follow the build up to that fateful interview as well as the actual taping, the tension begins to form.
On the one hand is the only man to have ever resigned the Presidency of the United States, desperate to reestablish his reputation and exert some control over his tarnished legacy; on the other hand is a breezy television personality with no particular political axe to grind who chases after the interview like a little boy who glimpses a shiny object from afar and wants it because everybody else wants it too. It is not a match of equals.
Nixon (Frank Langella) is a formidable man who dominates the people he meets through his intellect. He isn’t very attractive nor does he have any charm – at one point in the movie, Nixon wonders why he ever chose a profession that demands likability – and we only meet him when he’s suffering under the stigma of Watergate so he’s off kilter in public settings as well, but when he faces his interviewer in front of the camera, you can see him exerting his mental power over the flummoxed Frost and crushing him slowly with commendable ease. Even more dangerously, as an opponent he is a man who knows how to work his power to the best advantage – he sets the scene in his very first meeting where he stands cloaked in the mantle of the President and you can almost see Frost turn into an unworthy interloper in his private retreat. By the time he shows up for the interview in a cavalcade of black, very Presidential-looking limousines, the stage has been set. Frost is way out of his league.
As the interview winds its way to the final session, Frost and his associates are staring ignominy in the face. Nixon has hammered home his every point, trumpeted his every achievement and simply walked all over the hapless Frost. If Frost can ever manage to sell the interviews, which he financed with his own money and funds borrowed from friends, Nixon has a good chance of standing vindicated – a hero victimized by a hostile press and vile political opponents. The three men he hired to help him in his project – John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and John Reston (Amrita’s Crush a.k.a. Sam Rockwell) – are all convinced that they can kiss their careers goodbye after the monumental failure of this outing.
What the movie performs at this point, to me, is its most fascinating feat – it takes the much reviled figure of Richard Nixon and gives us a glimpse of what failure must mean to this man. Usually, when people are sympathetic to Nixon, they always frame it the way Nixon initially puts it himself in the movie – that he didn’t deserve it, there was more to him than the scandal, he was a good guy who got short shrift, the press did it to him, etc.
Frost/Nixon is not sympathetic to Richard Nixon. But it does allow him to be a human being, not a cartoon character to be mocked and railed against as illustrated in one beautiful scene between Zelnick and Reston when they’re introduced to Nixon for the first time.
And he’s not just any human being – he was a man who used to be the President of the United States of America. The enormity of what that meant, the power of that office whether you love it or loathe it, and what its loss must feel like… we’re all so caught up in the drama by this point that it’s only as the camera zooms in on Nixon’s face as he expresses his regret for what he did to the people of his country that we realize he didn’t escape unscathed. That no man could ever hope to do that.
99.99% of all humanity will never come within breathing distance of power like that, and this was a man who had it all. He was at the top of the pyramid. He fought for years and did everything humanly possible to get there. And then – it’s all gone. And not even the semblance of it will ever come back to him. And he has to live with its loss every single moment of his life.
We use the term “epic fail” these days to describe just about anything that we consider lame – a boneheaded move on a video game, inability to satisfactorily spin a story to your advantage, anything really. But what Nixon did was the true definition of the words “epic” + “fail”. He could have been all the things he was so desperate to establish in his interview with Frost and more; instead, as Reston observes, his lasting legacy is the addition of the suffix “gate” to anything deemed scandalous.
Much of the drama, nuance and entertainment comes directly from the marvelous face of Frank Langella. There isn’t a trick of expression that he misses, a pause that he doesn’t mine for some deeper emotion. If there was any justice in the world, he’d take home the Oscar this Sunday but all he has going for him is his performance so that doesn’t look too likely.
As for the other man in this pair, Michael Sheen…Why wasn’t Michael Sheen up for an award this season? Or at least in consideration? I’ll never understand it. The man can do pretty much anything, from Tony Blair to Lucien the love-crazed werewolf. You might think they would have at least found space for him at the Golden Globes.