“Tell me about the loneliness of Good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of Evil?”
– Frank Langella as Skeletor (in a line he personally wrote), to Dolph Lundgren in He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe
In a comment to my post about the Washington Post’s review of Ron Howard’s film Frost/Nixon, Ms. Maarja Krusten, formerly of the National Archives’s Nixon Project, most helpfully directed my attention to some remarks about this film, by former New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew, which appeared yesterday in the Huffington Post.
Ms. Drew’s opinion of the 37th President is abundantly documented across decades of articles and columns, not to mention a book-length study she wrote last year, which was one of the last volumes commissioned by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for Times Books’s American Presidents series. She has eternally been vigilant when it comes to any effort to depict Richard Nixon as someone whose comprehensive understanding of world affairs and willingness to maintain at least part of the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society did not, in the last analysis, compensate for his being, in her view, a paranoid, savage miscreant who almost destroyed the American way as it is understood in some sectors of the Eastern seaboard and in Santa Monica. Her post is therefore headed as I’ve quoted it above.
Ms. Drew’s remarks at the Huffington Post amplify on these views, concerning what she believes is the unwarranted sympathetic image of Nixon that she thinks Howard’s film (not to mention Peter Morgan’s script and Frank Langella’s portrayal of the ex-President) will generate among viewers. As Ms. Krusten notes, the veteran journalist even went to the trouble of contacting Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater of Washington, so that the latter could tsk-tsk over Morgan’s altering a line from the Frost-Nixon interview transcripts, something that the Bard would never have done given his well-known fidelity to the historical record, especially when it concerned opponents of the Tudor dynasty.
As I explained in a previous post, I thought that when Howard and Morgan took the “when the President does it, that means it is not wrong” line completely out of its original context in RN’s description of the circumstances that led to the proposal of the “Huston Plan” in 1970, and dropped it into his account of the events that followed the Watergate break-in, they were misleading viewers about the historical record in a big way. But Ms. Drew does not mention this, so I would guess it doesn’t bother her much. Instead, she’s rattled about the film taking RN’s response to a Frost question – “You’re wanting me to say I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!” – and altering it to a response more along the lines of the “mistakes were made” lines which form the climax of RN’s self-revelation in the play and film.
She also is not happy with the ways in which Frank Langella’s performance makes Nixon “sympathetic.” Here, I should mention that Langella’s performance is rather more nuanced than that, and, as many reviewers pointed out, is a natural culmination of his variegated career, in which he has played complex heroes (Sherlock Holmes) to tragic villains (Dracula) to shadowy evildoers (Quilty in Lolita) to the arch-enemy of the clean-cut hero (the aforequoted Skeletor). Most recently he has portrayed Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons on Broadway, in which role, as he has pointed out in at least one interview, he’s been able to see parallels between that statesman and Nixon. (Although it must be acknowledged that in other chats with journalists, he seems willing to go along with the writer’s preconceived notion that More and Nixon were complete opposites.)
Langella’s vocal performance is quite noteworthy. He can imitate RN’s vocal timbre, as Stacy Keach, in the traveling production of the Frost/Nixon play that I reviewed, could not. This obliged Keach to substitute for it a very meticulous imitation of RN’s phrasing. By contrast, Langella doesn’t need to exactly imitate the utterances of RN in the interviews or in the “off-camera” scenes.
So, just from the way he recites some lines (or raises an eyebrow or lowers a jowl), he can bring to the character something of his slippery writer in Diary Of A Mad Housewife, the avaricious but sympathetic protagonist of Mel Brooks’s The Twelve Chairs, as well as something of Sherlock Holmes, John Adams (the other President he’s played, despite being six-foot-four as opposed to Adams’s five-seven or RN’s five-eleven-and-a-half), and even Dracula or Skeletor. (Although, as I wrote in TNN last week, Ron Howard does, in some scenes, appear to play up the Skeletor parallels just a little more than the others.) Rather amusingly, at a few points in the film the actor speaks slowly and with a drawl, to the point where he almost sounds like ex-Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein essaying an impression of RN.
Langella’s performance is, therefore, not one-dimensional – or, we can say, it does not contain enough of one particular dimension to appease Ms. Drew. I should point out, though, that she is correct when she says that the film’s treatment of David Frost makes him out to be more of a lightweight that he truly was.
In the Frost/Nixon play as I saw it at the Kennedy Center, Alan Cox in the role of Frost spoke in a way so uncannily reminiscent of Eric Idle’s lampoon of Frost that it tended to make the character seem fatuous from the get-go. (Here, it’s worth mentioning that Matthew Macfadyen, as producer John Birt in the film version, sounds from time to time rather like David Walliams of Little Britain, but not so much as to disrupt the attention of viewers.)
In the film, Michael Sheen seems to take considerable pains to add more gravitas to the role of Frost in the early scenes than Morgan’s script permits. The film, more so than the play, aims for the conventional transformation of the hero from immature, untested tyro to seasoned professional through conflict, in the best Prince Hal/Henry V (or He-Man, for that matter) tradition.
This comes through rather explicitly in the scene where Frost, after receiving the half-comic, half-frightening phone call from Nixon, brusquely informs his girlfriend Caroline Cushing (played by Rebecca Hall) that it’s time to work. Ignoring the historical facts (which involved James Reston Jr. locating a transcript of a conversation between Nixon and Chuck Colson, and Birt and Frost carefully hiding it away for several months until it could be used for maximum effect) the movie shows Frost poring over raw transcripts. He writes down his “discovery” on a tablet in spectacularly disorganized fashion; what’s on the paper looks like some mad-genius scribbling left over from Howard’s 1999 film about mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind.
With this in hand, Frost abruptly becomes assured and authoritative, the playboy journalist no longer. That’s one part of the movie that nearly made me laugh out loud at its implausibility – that, and Frost/Nixon’s closing titles, which suggest (in a prime manifestation of the Tinseltown mentality) that the journalist came out of the “test” a success because he throws a spectacular party in Britain every summer, while implying that RN came out a failure because he wasn’t invited to enough state dinners.
(But, as Richard Holbrooke, the guru of Democratic foreign policy, points out in a very interesting op-ed today about the 30th anniversary of the normalization of US-Chinese diplomatic ties, RN was present at the state dinners that mattered to him. And the fact that the first of these occasions occurred in 1979, not very long after his conversations with Frost, demonstrates that the interviews, as I told TNN’s David Stokes on a recent radio show, helped bring him in from the wilderness, rather than keeping him out there as Morgan and Howard suggest.)
I may be writing more about the film later this week, but for now I’ll suggest the reader look at the comments following Ms. Drew’s post, which include some insightful rebuttals of her argument.