In today’s Washington Post Peter Marks interviews Ron Howard, the director of Nixon/Frost, and Peter Morgan, its writer.  On C-SPAN’s Washington Journal the other day Howard assured viewers that the film, already playing in New York and Los Angeles and scheduled to open in some other cities Friday (and nationwide on Christmas Day), was “nonpartisan” in its portrayal of Richard Nixon.  Today, he and Morgan went into some detail concerning how they thought viewers might react:

The filmmakers, for their part, say they wanted to humanize Nixon, but only up to a point. “We never, ever wanted it to be an apology,” declares Howard, an Oscar winner for his direction of “A Beautiful Mind.” “Sympathy is going too far. Empathy is a touchdown.”

At the notion that the film engenders compassion for Nixon, Morgan looks a bit pained. A very similar discussion, he says, developed around Helen Mirren’s depiction of Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” the 2006 film directed by Stephen Frears that also examined a public figure at an anguishing moment: the recrimination-filled aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

“Stephen Frears and I were mortified by the reaction,” Morgan says. “If we had felt it would have aroused so much sympathy, we might not have written it.”

To Morgan, the virtue of “Frost/Nixon” is that it takes no side at all[…]

Well, this might be what Peter Morgan thinks of the film, and it is true that in the play as I saw it staged at the Kennedy Center, Stacy Keach quite ably used his thespian skills to ensure that RN came across as a fairly rounded human being, his efforts in this respect being somewhat at odds with a script which casts David Frost and his cohorts as giant-killers.

But the film is different.  I saw it last Sunday in New York, and after its two hours and two minutes were over, there was little doubt in my mind that despite Frank Langella’s quite nuanced and complex performance as the 37th President, it was clear that what Ron Howard carried over from the play, and the changes that he and Peter Morgan made when adapting it to film, resulted in a finished project that not only plays up the kind of Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader-style clash that was evident on stage, but really carries it almost up to the level of a horror picture.

A scene early in the movie sets the tone.  Michael Sheen, as David Frost, is taping his talk/variety show in Australia.  He goes offstage and is informed that, right at that moment, RN is leaving the White House and boarding the helicopter that will take him to Air Force One and exile in California.  Sheen promptly goes to a nearby monitor.  As he leans over to get a better view of the black-and-white picture, the musical score by Hans Zimmer, already ominous in tone, grows even more chilling.  The cathode tube’s light casts a strange, unearthly glow on Sheen/Frost’s face, as if he were gazing into the Alien’s Cave or watching Frankenstein rise up as the laboratory equipment flickers.  Cut to Langella/Nixon, lumbering up the stairs to the aircraft’s doorway, turning and flashing the double V somewhat more clumsily than in real life.  Cut back to Sheen/Frost, still disturbingly enraptured, then back to Langella/Nixon, now seen through the window of the chopper, in profile and half-concealed by shadows.

Yes, it’s the old tale of Beowulf taking on Grendel, and all the successors to that narrative, carried forward into the age of video.  The viewer knows that the British journalist, having once gazed upon the Thing, will soon follow it right to its lair.

The rest of the film is more or less a depiction of how the interaction between the two men, and their final confrontation over Watergate resulting in Nixon’s partial apology, brings about a situation where the former president can now be condoned, if not exactly accepted, by America at large.  This is brought home by the scene in which RN leaves the house in which the interviews have been taped.  He spots a woman holding a dachshund, and walks over.  For a moment, ex-President and dog regard each other.  The question looms in the moviegoer’s mind: Is the dog going to bark? Is he going to bite old Dick Nixon? Langella/Nixon extends his hand and pats the canine’s head gingerly.  The dog does not bark or bite him.  Thus, the movie establishes that Nixon, having made as much of a confession as can be expected from him, has been tamed to the point where it’s safe to have him around children, dogs, and nice old ladies.  Zimmer’s music, now comparatively quiet and gentle, underscores this point.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss what happens between these two scenes (neither of which has a real equivalent in the play) and how the film’s dialogue, characterization and action seems designed to create a larger-(and scarier)- than-life image of Nixon in the viewer’s mind.