by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - April 6, 2009) It is difficult to watch Ron Howard's film "Frost/Nixon" without being struck by the parallels between the discredited 37th president and the 43rd, who has just skulked out of the White House. On one level, the film seems to be a variation on David and Goliath -- (unprepossessing TV host pitted against a monster who embodies most of the Seven Deadly Sins) and on another, a morality play about the dangers of overly empowering the office of the chief executive. In a sense, Nixon was simply a monster writ small compared to the atrocities perpetrated by George W. Bush, but a certain evil tendon connects one to the other. At the very least, we have to thank screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard for trying to raise the bar and producing a movie that is devoid of splattering "special effects" and membrane-bursting detonations.
The contest between the flawed champion (Nixon) and the challenger (Frost) is also something of a boxing bout between a reigning heavyweight titleholder (Frank Langella) and a somewhat desperate star-fucker (Michael Sheen) who is out of his league. As actors, the two men probably recognized that the conflict being depicted in the taping of the vulnerable ex-president and the over-ambitious talk-show host was also being played out for Oscar kudos. Although neither won an award, the unspoken undercurrent of Academy attention increased the real-life intensity of both.
Anyone who recalls David Frost's TV appearances in his series "That Was The Week That Was" will recognize that Frost, the dapper talk-show host, was not really the best-matched contender against the wily old schemer Richard Nixon. Essentially, Frost was an ambitious television entertainer who started out as a satirical comic and gradually became something of a tycoon in British commercial media. His moxie was his most visible asset and he used it to snare some of the most high-profile British leaders and politicians into televised interviews, always conscious of the fact that one's own charisma takes on a little sheen depending on the stature of the people being enticed before the cameras. There was enough braggadocio in Frost himself to justify a film in which someone like Jon Stewart interviews the interviewer about his insatiable appetite for national popularity.
Langella makes no effort to "imitate" or re-create Nixon as he was -- both the features and personality of the actor are too distant from the guarded, weasely, vindictive politician. Instead he concentrates on reproducing the characteristics of Nixon's speech patterns and the hail-fellow-well-met manner Tricky Dick adopted because his natural demeanor was so toxic something was needed to gloss it over. Langella plays him sly, duplicitous, scheming, and phony -- which makes it too easy to dislike him -- even as one admires his guile and ability to manipulate situations to his advantage. Here he is Mephistopheles to Sheen's Faust -- almost always scoring points in the improvised exchanges.
The swelling crisis in the film concerns Frost's attempt as the underdog to triumph over Goliath and, because good always triumphs over evil in most films, he does just that. But one feels afterwards that it is something of a shallow victory; a short burst of repentance about letting down the American people and that he was as big a villain as he was thought to be both by the press and the public. The developing bonhomie between the two men is the film's saving grace in that it tries to suggest that behind the sparring, they both had much in common. Which of course they did, as Frost was as ambitious to reignite his career as Nixon was to aggrandize his.
The actual combat between the two has a kind of magnetism drawn from the historical facts; the knowledge that we are watching a replay of significant American history -- but, because it is couched as a duel between two protagonists, neither one of whom is particularly wholesome, it inclines the audience into trying to determine who will emerge victorious. But since what is at stake is only a few confessional words about a crime, the opprobrium of which is generally known, the tension that is built up is too transparently contrived. Its climax is further weakened by the fact that we know that during Nixon's visit to the Oxford University Union, he openly confessed that he had "screwed up" and failed the American people. (I cannot ascertain whether the Oxford Union confessional occurred before or after the taping sessions -- but either way it blurs the significance of the ex-president's mea culpa.) Michael Sheen gives as good as he gets, but is far too puppy-like and ingratiating whereas Frost's outstanding quality was a harsh, brass-knuckled humor with which he often intimidated his more vulnerable guests.
So what we are left with are two bravura performances by two talented actors; one whose morality is slightly less tarnished than the other -- but neither of which transforms the hubris of a thieving ex-president into the gravity of Shakespearean tragedy (no defeated "Richard II" in rags here.) Like the Nixon tapes themselves, we are regaled by a fencing match in which the antagonist uses a rapier and the protagonist a battle-axe, and though we are being cued to root for the boy with the rapier, we find ourselves succumbing to the charisma of the man wielding the battle-axe. And so, the heinous crimes of Richard Nixon are converted into a kind of debating bravado which, historically speaking, lets him off the hook and even confers a certain stature upon the scoundrel.
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