By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 20, 2008)
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
-Wm. Shakespeare (from Richard III)
I’m saying that when the president does it…that means it’s not illegal.
-Richard M. Nixon
There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy, and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5 year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view.
Time passed. Most Americans turned their attention to the recession of ’74-’75, and various shiny distractions like Pet Rocks, disco balls, and Charlie’s Angels. Some inquiring minds, however, still wanted to know. One of them was a British television personality/savvy self-promoter by the name of David Frost, who had been kicking around the medium since the early 60s in various guises, from droll satirist (That Was the Week that Was and The Frost Report in the U.K.) to straight-up talk show host (Frost on America).
Although he occasionally interviewed politicians and statesmen, he wasn’t generally thought of as a “journalist” prior to 1977. When he first started shopping an idea to tackle former President Nixon in a series of exclusive TV interviews, he raised many an eyebrow and was laughed out of a few network executive’s offices (it would be like David Letterman suddenly deciding that he wanted to become the next Mike Wallace… “Get out of here, you nut!”). Undeterred, Frost decided that he would fund the project himself and independently syndicate the broadcasts. Eventually, of course, the interviews did hit the airwaves, and the rest, as they say, is History.
While the broadcasts themselves have become the stuff of legend to political junkies (as it is the closest anyone ever got to coaxing anything resembling a pang of conscience and regret from The Tricky One for his crimes), the machinations leading up to the actual broadcasts may not sound like the makings of an engrossing tale, but it has inspired a popular Broadway play and now a riveting new film.
Guided with an assured hand by director Ron Howard, and adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (from his own award-winning play), Frost/Nixon is a superbly crafted mélange of history lesson, courtroom drama, backstage tale, championship boxing match, and (perhaps most importantly) another tie-in for you to use to impress friends with your prowess at playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Morgan’s screenplay is deftly built around this perfect setup for a clash of the titans: The Consummate Showman vs. The Consummate Politician. The “oil and water” mix of the two personalities is also a natural for theatrical consideration. Frost was good-looking, charming, glib, and fashionably attired; whereas Nixon was shifty-eyed, socially awkward and brooding, with a relatively rumpled countenance.
In this corner: Former President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, reprising his Tony-winning stage role), his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), his former White House Chief of Staff/Man Friday Jack Brennen (Kevin Bacon!), and wife Pat (Patty McCormack). And in this corner: David Frost (Michael Sheen, also reprising his Broadway role), his chief researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) and girlfriend/Muse (Rebecca Hall).
Langella and Sheen are nicely in tune with each other onscreen; likely this is due to the fact that they’ve had ample opportunity to flesh out their respective characters during the course of their Broadway run. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by Langella (he already has a Golden Globe nom, we will see what happens come Oscar time). Armed with Morgan’s incisive dialog, and with Howard’s skillful and unobtrusive direction to cover his flank, he uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.
All the supporting performances are wonderful, particularly from Platt and Rockwell as Frost’s tenacious strategists, who in a roundabout way play out like Tom Stoppard’s re-imagining of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Nixon’s Hamlet (if I may continue to run with the Shakespearean analogies). Indeed, it is Rockwell’s character who utters the most insightful observation in the script about Nixon’s Achilles Heel in this affair; he posits that no matter how cagily Nixon fancied himself to be putting one over on Frost, he was ultimately done in by something that never lies: “The reductive power of the close-up.” Anon. (Fade to black).