(Universal) Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard
It is said that the United States lost its innocence during the Watergate affair. That’s a bit simplistic – there has always been corruption and chicanery, even in the highest office, only not quite so public. When Nixon resigned, it was in the face of mounting evidence that he would be impeached for certain. Some of his detractors, however, howled, particularly when Ford pardoned him. It was as if we would never get any sort of admission of wrongdoing, or even acknowledgement that there had even been any. However, the closest we ever got to getting that satisfaction came from the most unlikely of sources.
David Frost (Sheen) was a British talk show host who had ambitions of greater success in America. His last show had failed and he needed something to put him back on the map. For Nixon’s (Langella) part, he was looking for nothing less than a comeback; a chance to redeem his tarnished reputation and restore his legacy. There were many clamoring for one-on-one interviews with the former president, three years after his resignation – three years spent in public silence. Every news anchor on every network was chomping at the bit to get Nixon in front of their cameras. However, Nixon – ever the crafty political fox – chose Frost, thinking he would have no problem controlling the interview and accomplishing exactly what he wanted to do.
Frost was well aware that he was in over his head and hired researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), both rabid anti-Nixonites, to do as much research on Watergate and the Nixon presidency as was possible in the limited time they had to prepare. In the meantime, Frost was having difficulty securing financing and the networks were screaming bloody murder and making accusations of “checkbook journalism.”
It was a minor miracle that the interview took place at all, but on March 23, 1977 Nixon and Frost sat down in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Smith of Monarch Bay, California and began to converse. The stakes were high for both men; if Nixon couldn’t outwit Frost and control the perception of the American people, he would go to his grave a disgraced man. If Frost was unable to gain that control over the interview, he would be responsible for the resurrection of Nixon’s public image and quite possibly, lose the only chance to get Nixon to speak on Watergate for all time.
These interviews were turned into a stage play which has in turn been adapted into a motion picture by populist director Ron Howard, who on the surface would seem to be the wrong man for this job – you would think someone along the lines of Oliver Stone or Robert Redford might be more suitable. Nevertheless, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted the work from his own play) have done a masterful work of making what is essentially a static situation (two guys sitting in chairs in a room) whose outcome is known seem suspenseful, tense and not the least bit stage-y.
The movie is well-served by its stars, who both appeared in the same roles in the stage play both in the West End and on Broadway. Langella, in particular, inhabits his role with some dignity, and justifiably received an Oscar nomination for it. He gives the disgraced president a human side, even charming at times but with hints of the ferocious game player that Nixon was, and at the same time horribly insecure about himself. Langella’s Nixon isn’t the boogie man the counterculture made him out to be; he was just ambitious to the point of self-destruction and even in his own way a good man who became a victim of his own hubris.
Sheen, who had just played Tony Blair to great acclaim in The Queen, gives another bravura performance which was in some ways more subtle than Langella, but no less spectacular. Frost is portrayed as a bit on the shallow side and quite charming in a rakish way, but also with his own insecurities; he was well-aware he was in over his head and managed to bring out the steel in his backbone only when it was really needed.
The interplay between Nixon and Frost was fascinating to watch here. They aren’t friends precisely, but both recognize a bit of the other in themselves. It allows a bit of a bond which the film’s ending seems to indicate went beyond the interviews. Although some liberties were taken with the facts (for example, the interviews took place three days a week for two hours a day for a total of 12 days of interviews over the space of a month; here, Nixon’s famous admission that his actions weren’t illegal because he was president takes place on the very last day of the interviews when in reality it took place on the fifth day.
That’s mere window dressing, however. It is the job of the filmmaker to maintain the essence of the events, not recreate them exactly note for note. Howard accomplishes that marvelously and while some have accused both him and Morgan for having been rather soft on President Nixon, it is by all accounts true that Nixon could be a charming, kindly-seeming man when the occasion called for it and was on friendly terms with David Frost until his death in 1994.
Nixon remains an enigma in modern history. We will never know why he chose to do the things he did, and what demons drove him to make those decisions. He will always be the first – and so far, only – President to resign from office and as Reston says in the voice-over, any political scandal from then to know will have the word “gate” attatched as a suffix. You may not get any insight into Nixon the man, but you will understand better the mystique that swirled around him in those difficult years.
WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the confrontation between two men, each with their insecurities and into the mind of the disgraced President. The performances of Sheen and Langella are as good as it gets.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes showing the preparation for the interviews go on too long and the movie lags a bit; it’s probably about 10 or 15 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough cursing that this movie got an “R” rating; quite frankly, it isn’t so blue that I would prevent the average teen from seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on The Real Interviews in which the principle filmmakers as well as the playwright share their own experiences with interviews, and scenes from the actual interviews are shown to give you an idea how closely the recreation matches the original. There’s also an excellent featurette on the Nixon Library, illustrating the importance of presidential libraries overall. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is also a featurette that shows which of the locations were actually used for the original interviews, and Sir David Frost himself weighs in on his opinion of the play and the movie. The Blu-Ray edition comes with the U-Control feature, which allows picture-in-picture features that correspond to the appropriate places in the movie.
FINAL RATING: 8/10