Produced by Imagine Entertainment and Studio Canal
Directed by Ron Howard
Screenplay by Peter Morgan
Distributed by Universal Pictures
On August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon officially resigned from the presidency, I discovered just how rabid political hatred could become short of taking up arms. I was in my faculty cubicle after teaching a summer class. From the hallway, I heard two professors, both feminists, cackling uncontrollably: “Oh, God, they got that sonofabitch, they got him,” one was chortling between gasps. “Yeah, they really, really did,” the other agreed after catching her breath. “But,” she continued, “I won’t be happy until they get his daughters too-oo.” Pealing, shrieking hysteria bounced off the prefab metal walls of our cheaply constructed quarters.
Nixon was everything leftists hated. Over the years he had fed their hatred, and the more he did, the more insatiable it became. Even today, there are some who will never get enough Nixon to kick around. They couldn’t forgive him for defeating Helen Gahagan Douglas, film actor Melvyn’s socialist wife, in 1948. He had called her The Pink Lady—pink down to her underwear. (Nixon, alas, didn’t know when to stop.) They resented him for helping to expose Alger Hiss, especially after it had become blazingly obvious that Hiss had been lying when he so urbanely denied being a Soviet agent while serving in FDR’s state department. Worse, Nixon had hurled his accusations at Hiss in tones that expressed his middle-class contempt for the entitled rich boy who had used his connections to betray his country. They blamed Nixon for the Vietnam War as if he had started it, conveniently exonerating Kennedy and Johnson. When Nixon attempted to negotiate a peace with Hanoi without risking America’s position in the world, the left went screaming into the streets. Who was this war criminal to talk about peace with honor? And how they abhorred his bourgeois mentality, his tidy American family, his American-flag lapel pin, his thoughtful hesitancy when speaking. And those photo ops of him walking along the beach as if he were a Kennedy! The bastard was wearing wingtips, for godsakes! A man who wears wingtips on the beach must be a fascist.
There was little Nixon could do about all this. He knew he was not a political natural like Jack Kennedy. He envied his rival’s spontaneity and laboriously tried to script it into his public appearances, everything from formal speeches to casual meet-and-greets. Consequently, when he appeared in public, everything he said seemed contrived, for the very good reason that it was. He only had to open his mouth and say, “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” in his basso-profundo rumble, and people felt he was lying even when they knew he wasn’t. Throughout his career he wrote pep talks to himself. In January 1970, he put down the following: “Add element of lift to each appearance. . . . Hard work—Imagination—Compassion—Leadership—Understanding the young. . . . Lift spirit of people—Pithy, memorable phrases.” Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, he was trying to become his own Platonic conception of himself. And like Gatsby, unfortunately, this made him seem slightly ridiculous at times.
I think the women I’d overheard in 1974 were in the Loew’s Lincoln Center movie theater last week when I attended the afternoon showing of Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon. And they seemed to have brought a legion of their friends. There was that same self-congratulatory cackling, albeit in a deeper register, multiplied 30 or 40 times over. They had come to revel in Morgan’s dramatization of the interviews Nixon had granted British chat-show impresario David Frost three years after leaving office. They were especially moved to derision during the scenes that featured the Nixon family together. They comically hissed at the spectacle of Nixon’s wife, Pat, his daughters, and their husbands pulling for the former President to do well on camera. Such gloating merriment confirms that there’s generally a grain of truth in every paranoiac’s fears. Nixon spent his career looking over his shoulder for enemies. This audience proved his suspicion justified. Though he’s been dead 14 years, these enemies continue to dance on his grave whenever the opportunity arises. And Howard’s film provides ample opportunity, although it also arouses, perhaps unintentionally, sympathy.
The Frost interviews are an example of the dubious practice of checkbook journalism. Both men stood to profit substantially from the exercise should it prove sufficiently titillating to the world audience. For starters, Nixon was paid $600,000 for his performance, with $200,000 up front. He was also contractually entitled to 20 percent of the profits derived from the show’s exhibition, a detail the film leaves out, the first of its many evasions and distortions. Why leave it out? The film wants to entertain us with the spectacle of Frost taking Nixon down in its third act when, having finally been cornered with damaging evidence, Mr. Disgraced President at last admits his guilt for the “wrongdoing” (Frost’s gentlemanly term) of Watergate. If the film were clearer about how much more Nixon stood to profit beyond his initial fee, the audience might be less impressed with the David-and-Goliath template Morgan pressed upon his material. They might suspect Nixon of spicing the interviews with a seeming confession, couching his words in the language of sincere contrition for “mistakes” made under extraordinary “pressure” during a time of political turbulence. And I think they’d be right. The interviews were a bonanza for Frost and Nixon, and Howard’s film promises to reward Frost handsomely once more. Although he granted Morgan permission to use the transcripts gratis, he’s taken the occasion to publish a book on the interviews and release the original footage on DVD.
The interviews came at a crucial moment in the careers of both men. Frost had enjoyed some success on American television in the 60’s and early 70’s until Westinghouse Broadcasting dropped his show. This ambitious fellow found himself relegated to television in London and Sydney. Frost didn’t like these smaller venues at all. Nixon was to be his American comeback. For his part, the former President had spent three years nursing his wounds in San Clemente after being hounded from office and wanted his own comeback. He hoped to regain at least something of his former luster as a statesman.
Although Morgan notes the self-serving nature of the enterprise, he pretends it has historical clout nevertheless. He shapes the interviews as if they were a succession of boxing rounds, with the last one climaxing with a TKO that leaves Nixon on the ropes thoroughly battered and conceding he let down the American people and the American system of government. But this falsifies things considerably. Nixon’s concession came two thirds of the way through the interviews, and he stayed in the fight after making it. This has at least two implications, both damaging to Morgan’s credibility. First, while the original transcript strongly suggests Frost had discomfited Nixon with the evidence that he knew about Watergate and its cover-up earlier than he had acknowledged previously, the president had the courage to face the music and go on dancing. Nixon’s response to Frost’s evidence was masterly. He put the matter into a contrite perspective that notes its seriousness without for a moment suggesting it was a crime—only poor judgment under fire. Second, had Nixon felt undone by this exchange, he could have pulled up stakes and let Frost return to London to stew in his jugged hare. But, no, Nixon continued for another three sessions. This suggests that the interrogation went the way Nixon had expected and, perhaps, even desired. It’s reasonable to believe that this carefully prepared man wanted a public accounting. It would enable him to own up to his errors while rendering them pardonable in the eyes of the public.
There are other problems with Morgan’s dramatization. During the segment devoted to Vietnam, Nixon reminds Frost that he didn’t start the war but rather inherited it. When Frost demands to know why he continued to fight it, Nixon retorts that honor left him no choice. “I coulda bugged out and maybe I woulda won myself a medal from some small Scandinavian country,” he sneers and goes on to point out the dangerous consequences of instant surrender. Then, he sums up: “In a way you could say I’m the last casualty of Vietnam.” This claim would be breathtaking, even immorally self-serving, had Nixon made it—but he hadn’t. The transcript reveals that the words “last casualty” were spoken by Frost:
Frost: If the Vietnam War had not gone on throughout your presidency, there probably would have been less, much less, domestic discord, . . . and many of the so-called abuses of power might never have occurred or come to light or been necessary. In that sense, . . . perhaps you were the last American casualty of the Vietnam War.
Nixon: A case could be made for that, yes.
Morgan’s rewrite is an unconscionable distortion. Here’s another: When Nixon learns that Frost was once engaged to Diahann Carroll, he wrinkles his nose and asks, “She’s black, isn’t she?” So Nixon was a racist, right? Wrong. Nixon’s policies regarding blacks were unusually farsighted for a Republican of his generation. He insisted, for instance, on strategies for desegregating schools, his only “sin” being that he wanted to achieve this goal without resorting to forced out-of-district busing.
I’ll leave it at this: Although Morgan makes it look like he’s being fair to the media’s favorite monster president, he’s not. Justice for Nixon is still not where the money is.
As for the film’s acting, it’s about as faithful as Morgan’s ellipses and alterations. I can’t imagine that Michael Sheen believed he was impersonating Frost. He plays him with a boyish edge-of-the-seat eagerness completely alien to Frost’s drawling, languorous I’m-a-Cambridge-graduate demeanor. This son of a Methodist minister has never exhibited the ferret-like, go-getting intensity Sheen displays. As Nixon, Frank Langella seems to be doing an impression of David Fry doing an impression of Nixon. He hunches his shoulders, shambles flat-footedly, flings his arms about as if they were unhinged semaphores, and growls sonorously in registers lower than those previously visited by the human voice. Yet, to be fair, at moments Langella does manage to convey the man’s pathos and wit. He certainly has the funniest lines, and he delivers them with quiet delight. Few people in the theater seemed to be laughing, however.
At the film’s faux climax, Nixon tells Frost, “I gave [my enemies] a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish.” They’re still twisting it.