By now enough has been written about the story —and the backstory— of Frost/Nixon (and not least here at TNN) that I won’t take your time by telling that tale yet again. Rather, I’ll cut right to the chase and try to answer the question: Is Ron Howard’s version of Frost/Nixon, which opened wide in cinemas all across the country today, any good? And if the answer to that question is “yes,” then just how good is it, and in exactly what ways?
I submit that the criterion for judging great history is accuracy: How closely does the account being offered comport with all the available evidence and documentation, and how extensive and objective is the research on which it is based?
And the criterion for judging great drama is truth: How honestly does the story being told reflect the human aspects and emotions of the characters, real or invented, that are involved?
That is why, for example, Nixonland, works brilliantly as a polemic, while, read as history, it is pretty much bunk. And that is why, as drama, Frost/Nixon rings true from the opening credits to the final fade, and absolutely rivets its audience from beginning to end.
In the history department, Frost/Nixon’s cred is marginal. Aside from the scrupulous attention paid to capturing the look —and in many cases, recreating even the most minor details— of that stylistically benighted period from 1974 to 1977, its accuracy is mostly tangential. As part of their extensive pre-shoot due diligence, director Howard and screenwriter Morgan met with many of those who had been in San Clemente during the Frost shoots —including yours truly— to discuss that experience. Most of their questions —after, of course, “What was Nixon really like?”— had to do with nailing down specific details ranging from whether RN preferred tea or coffee, to the color and the number of rings in the loose leaf binders in which we submitted material to him, to whether or not Manolo’s blazer had a presidential seal on the breast pocket.
As its lopsided billing indicates, Frost/Nixon is told from the point of view of one of the two protagonists (or, as Mr. Morgan would have it, the two antagonists). This Frostcentric version of the events is based on Sir David’s own contemporary account (I Gave Them The Sword, 1978) and the diary of one of his researchers (subsequently published as The Conviction of Richard Nixon, 2007).
Considering its sources, at the very best Frost/Nixon can only tell the one side of the story of what happened during those wrought weeks and overwrought days in the spring of ’77.
But for every action on the part of Team Frost, there was an equal and opposite reaction from Team Nixon — and I don’t think I’m being myopic, or disrespecting Sir David, when I say that the Nixon side would be incomparably the more important and interesting of the two. Perhaps someday someone will write Nixon/Frost and the two can be played in tandem like the histories of Shakespeare (or, depending on your point of view and frame of reference, the farces of Alan Ayckbourn).
Apparently Sir David has expressed some concerns of his own about the accuracy of Frost/Nixon’s rendition of his side of the story. But one man can only do so much, so I’ll have to leave that to him to sort out. But I can tell you that, as far as the Nixon side is concerned, this film belongs more in the Da Vinci Code than in the Apollo 13 column of Mr. Howard’s impressive oeuvre. That said, and while as history it’s no better than it needs to be, as a movie it’s hard to imagine how it could be much better. It’s simply a terrific flick: provocative, suspenseful, thoughtful, entertaining, and accomplished.
It was Peter Morgan’s insight as a playwright to recognize and heighten the inherent drama in that thirty-two year old televised encounter between Frost and Nixon. On the stage in London and New York, directed by Michael Grandage and with Messrs. Sheen and Langella in the title roles, Frost/Nixon was an unlikely, but well deserved, hit. (The national road tour of the Grandage production, starring Alan Cox and Stacy Keach, will be visiting Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Boston during January)
It is Mr. Morgan’s skill as a screenwriter that he manages to retain all the tension of the small screen face off even as his material is opened both out and up to fit the demands of the big screen.
The film Frost remains largely unchanged from the stage version. Superficial bordering on vapid, he finds (or is forced to discover), just in time for the denouement, hitherto unknown depths of toughness and gravitas. As a dramatic construct this is useful and probably inevitable. But it is also, at least based on my own experience, only one side of the story.
I had the opportunity of meeting and getting to know David Frost in England in the mid-1960s while I was working for Randolph Churchill. I got to see early on the side of him that has always been easy to underestimate — perhaps because it has been less visible, and perhaps because there are so many so eager to underestimate it. He is an extremely smart, canny, clever, ambitious, and indefatigable entrepreneur. To be sure, the somewhat smarmy gushing showman is there and is real, but it is only, so to speak, the frosting.
The film Nixon is rather different from the stage version. As the story’s scope is widened and broadened, he inevitably becomes more of a consequential figure, with the trappings that accompany power even in exile. The fact that he is being projected on a scale thirty feet high and seventy feet wide sends its own signals in this regard.
Ron Howard was able to film in the Nixon Library’s replicated East Room, on the steps of the real Marine One, and at the Casa Pacifica itself (albeit a far grander incarnation of that noble house than the one I remember from the days when the Nixons called it home).
If the film Nixon is more consequential and historical, he is decidedly less humorous, less witty and, for those available to be won over, less winning.
With a play, the theatrical experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Each audience brings with it a completely different set of vibes that immediately impact the actors; and the play, as it unfolds, establishes a unique and intimate relationship with each member of that audience as they view it, literally and figuratively, from their unique perspectives.
But once the film is in the can, the audience members are primarily individual spectators sharing only a marginally communal experience as they sit watching larger than life figures moving in two dimensions across a screen half as long as a city block.
The filmic RN still has a few solid laugh lines. The now famous fornication question remains sure-fire, although the circumstances that surrounded and explained it (but make it far less funny) are omitted. Many of the most telling details —including Brezhnev’s moving speech about his father and, most importantly, the late night phone call that is as apocryphal as it is pivotal— remain whole cloth manufactures of Mr. Morgan’s mind.
Indeed, now I know at first hand how that feels to be Morganized. The scene in which “Frank Gannon” discuss an aspect of the Frost biography with “Richard Nixon” never happened.
While Nixonians can and should continue to examine the facts of the Nixon/Frost interviews as a part of RN’s historical life and legacy, we should also recognize that, where Frost/Nixon is concerned, we’re dealing with drama. And, unlike Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which was a hatchet job tarted up as historical psychodrama, Frost/Nixon is an honest attempt to understand and depict the personal and psychological dynamics of two men engaged in a highly dramatic high stakes enterprise.
Whether or not Shakespeare made Richard III badder than he really was —or even than he had to be— is irrelevant to the power of the play. Similarly, while the characters on each side of the F/N seesaw are dramatic creations based on real people, any resemblance to those real-life counterparts is mostly —if not purely— coincidental.
People in general, and popular history in particular, have accepted a version of Nixon and Watergate that is going to hold sway for at least another few decades, until a new and truly independent generation of historians begin to consider RN, his life, and his presidency, anew. In this they will be aided, ironically, by the administration’s unprecedented degree of record-keeping and the numbers of its records that were kept. But until then the conventional wisdom will continue to prevail.
The media, of course, were obsessed and fascinated with Watergate; but polls showed that, for the vast and still mostly silent majority of Americans, the whole thing was seen —at least until near the end— as a case of business as usual where politicians were involved.
The American people, in the period 1972-74, were ready to move on from Watergate if RN had just accepted the blame as well as the responsibility, and apologized in a way, and in a voice, that rang true. But instead of accepting the reality of the public’s perception and cutting his losses, RN determined to prove the difficult, complex, nuanced —and, let’s face it, shifting— case that he was innocent. In this way his convoluted defense ended up becoming, first, a frustration, then an embarrassment, and, finally and equally damning, a bore.
The White House’s history of Watergate defense during those years —promising that this speech would be the final and definitive accounting, and that this release of documents would at last answer every question, followed by barrages of new revelations and charges — simply wore America down until a majority were ready to see Nixon go just to be rid of him so everyone could move on. In the end, when his defense options had narrowed and collapsed, and his ability to mobilize congressional support and influence public opinion had evaporated, he decided to resign rather than subject the nation, and the world, to the trauma and indignity of a President in the dock.
To that extent, the operative dramatic premise of Frost/Nixon — that only one of them could emerge victorious from the contest of the interviews — doesn’t ring true. This notion is epitomized and apotheosized in the late night last minute phone call, and it is nothing less than the linchpin of Mr. Morgan’s dramaturgy.
But, in fact, the Frost/Nixon interviews had the potential, and actually turned out to be, a win/win situation for both participants. Frost finally got Nixon to say what most Americans had wanted to hear; and Nixon, at last, had said it. The impact of watching RN say that he understood what the country had endured, and to express himself about it in straightforward and emotional terms, had a tremendous impact that only those who remember it can fully understand and appreciate.
Indeed, in the end, it only took very little for RN to address and, effectively, cauterize Watergate. In purely objective terms, and in view of what the Nixon critics had been demanding, what RN actually said to David Frost represented more of an emotional than a substantive advance over anything he had said before.
Even as pathological a Nixonphobe as James Reston Jr. —the Frost researcher whose motivating principle was finally to drive the silver spike of Watergate’s truth through Richard Nixon’s dark and evil heart—- ended up accepting the essentially unreconstructed formulations about honest mistakes, innocent intentions, and refusals to grovel, in order to embrace the few minutes of emotional truth that RN finally chose to reveal. These days, Mr. Reston, like Sir David, seems to be intent on turning Frost/Nixon into a cottage industry; and more power to them if they succeed.
That critical Watergate encounter, which is the centerpiece of the play and the film, was treated as news, processed as drama, and accepted as catharsis — several years overdue, but better late than never. Despite the stated terms of the film and the assertion of its printed postscript, the Frost interviews were the first and major building block of what turned out to be RN’s second comeback, and his reemergence on the world stage as a wise man and an elder statesman.
Frank Langella gives a serious and stirring account of RN. He wisely eschews imitation, much less impersonation. Aside from some of the obviously applied physical characteristics, and the adoption of a recognizably husky vocal timbre, Mr. Langella’s Nixon is convincing not because it is derivative, but because it is complete. In fact, quite unlike RN, whose locution was formal and whose diction was precise, this Nixon speaks casually and colloquially and often even drops his “gs.” Mr. Langella uses his brain (and undoubtedly his heart) to embody the balanced elements of confidence, formality, toughness, shyness, insecurity, and vulnerability, and then renders them into a character that must move and compel even the people who knew RN, and have that high standard of comparison. Of course, that’s what acting at this exalted level is all about.
And Ron Howard, much of whose work has been open and optimistic and straightforward, has turned out to be the ideal director for this complex, essentially cerebral, and decidedly dark two finger exercise. He is above all a story teller, and he keeps his eye on Frost/Nixon‘s clear, compelling, and chronological story line. But while he knows how to keep the narrative moving forward, he also has the willingness —and the confidence— to slow things down and take the time it takes to let the story not just unfold but take root and sink in. This is brilliant directing — inspired, authoritative, and unobtrusive.
Hans Zimmer’s score deserves special mention. In its cool and coolly minimal way it is the perfect accompaniment to what is happening on screen. The film’s only clinker is shared by director and composer, when some horrendous footage of Cambodian casualties is accompanied by music that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the score, and manipulatively derivative (it sounds like they’re channeling Barber’s Adagio).
The cast is, typically of a Howard film, excellent and appropriate. That said, Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan would have been that much more effective, as well as accurate at least to that extent, had he spoken Jack’s made up lines with Jack’s real variety of Boston accent. And the selection of the excellent and accomplished Andy Milder to play the pivotal —if underwritten— part of Frank Gannon was clearly a decision to cast for solid acting chops and on screen charisma rather than simple physical resemblance; besides, I understand that Brad Pitt was already committed to another project.
For some time I have been considering proposing a TNN rating system that awards Checkers instead of stars. And I’ll launch it here and now by awarding the highest honor —Five Checkers— to Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon.