Richard Milhous Nixon, forever imbued in American minds with his dog-eyed features and syrupy drawl, will be remembered as a presidential charlatan; someone too concerned with his own fears to adequately run the country. Someone who, in the minds of political scholars and average citizens, will have his image washed away by the petulant waves of Watergate.
In Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, we see the former president, so commonly characterized in cartoons as a bulbous-faced, bushy-eyebrowed watermark for political failure, to be a man of feigned happiness and inconsolable sadness. Howard, in directing this mesmerizing picture, shows us Nixon after the cameras roll back, his stylists leave, and the mushroom clouds of makeup settle.
Howard’s film begins with Nixon apprehensively resigning his presidency. In his last speech, Nixon, sweating profusely, addresses the nation. His consummate ego, unable to fully concede, instead shuffles some papers half-heartedly, offering little apology to the American people. This is all television host, David Frost, needs as he watches the announcement from a studio feed in Australia. He is immediately intrigued with the story, and offers an idea to his producer: “Let’s do an interview with Nixon and give him the trial he never had.” Frost, known to be more of a showman than a journalist, assumes that the telecast will make his ratings boom. Unaware of the former President’s stubborn attitude and self-indulgent pandering, Frost, being the entertainer he is, figures to blindside Nixon with a plethora of taboo questions concerning the Watergate break-in – this, as it turns out, will not be easy.
In his plush residence in California, Tricky Dick, as he is colorfully called, watches both the liquor in his glass and the waves at his ocean front home recede. Told by his publicist that the Frost interview will be a puff-piece, Nixon agrees to indulge the talk show host for a large sum of money. The question and answer sessions, we soon find out, will last only a short few days; leaving little precious time for Frost and his crack team of investigators to find further incriminating information about the monolithic political figure.
When it comes time for the interview, Frost and Nixon engage in what seems like a prizefight; a jungle of camera cables form a makeshift ring for the two men, as they square off, sparring and prodding each other for verbal supremacy. The operatic finale, showing Nixon violently buck heads with his interviewer, is one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences you’re likely to see this year. For being filmed as a stage play, virulent rebukes and seismic rebuttals litter the room like motor holes on a battlefield. The craftsmanship, ever apparent in Peter Morgan’s sensational screenplay, keeps the movie continually fresh at each turn. The payoff is a tremendous accomplishment to an already remarkable film.
Ron Howard, I think, must be proud of this collective assembly of talented actors and writers. In the most inspired transformation of the year, Frank Langella, who could certainly win an award for his portrayal of Nixon, all but virtually becomes the crestfallen president during his electric screen time.
But the movie’s not about Nixon’s incessant need for publicity, or even his callous gestures to the American people. Frost/Nixon is a sad elegy about a man who deserved, if nothing else, a character study. The movie prods the former president to the very core: Langella seethes, skulks, and wags his finger with frightening authenticity. There is a real feeling that everyone in this cast sunk their teeth into the script, and came out victorious in the process.
Howard, in directing this phenomenal picture, knew that both Frost and Nixon were shamed men. Frost, being the host of an expendable television show, and Nixon, being withered and disenfranchised, both had something to desperately claw for.
Through all of the president’s unintelligible grunts, there was something unintentionally lyrical about his life. Thankfully, Ron Howard had the intellect and know how to adequately visualize the prose of his misery.