It’s interesting reflecting on this film, because it’s apparent that it means one thing to the director and some of the actors, and something else to me. I cringed when I originally heard about this production, because it seemed a prime opportunity to “bash” Richard Nixon, but when I heard who the writer was, most of my anxieties were eased. He also penned The Queen, one of my favorite films and a fair and balanced look at the controversies surrounding Princess Diana’s death and the reaction of the royal family — so I suspected that this film would also be fair. And surprisingly, it is.
It brings a collective grimace to most of the older conservatives I know, and is a blot on the reputation of a president who actually resigned from office in order to escape impeachment. I am too young to remember it, as it happened long before my time, but the circumstances surrounding the infamous controversy remain fascinating to this day. Frost/Nixon, by contrast, is not about Watergate so much as two individuals set on a similar course with the same ambition — to dominate the headlines. David Frost spent millions landing the interview of a lifetime (a disgraced president) and Richard Nixon looked at it as his chance at redemption, to remind the American public of the good he did in office before scandal overwhelmed his presidency.
What could have been a very boring docudrama has a sense of urgency and interest to it, as we watch two very different and yet at times strikingly similar individuals “prepare for battle.” Frost needs a good interview. Nixon needs to conquer Frost. And the American public needs answers.
It’s apparent in interviews with the director, Ron Howard, that this was his vendetta against the then-current administration, one he felt was responsible for crimes as irresponsible and heinous as those of President Nixon. In his mind, Nixon represented Bush and Frost was, who? Maybe Ron Howard? Some unknown journalist we have yet to encounter? Someone holding President Bush accountable for what he believes is wrongdoing in the presidency? I guess I can sort of see that, but then, in order to truly draw the parallels you have to believe the way Ron Howard does. As a conservative, I don’t see it. And I’m glad, because I think the non-bias of the writer in presenting two equally fascinating, deeply empathetic individuals makes the movie far stronger than if it had been merely an assault from the left.
Admittedly, I entered this production with a certain amount of bias — both Langella and Sheen are actors I have come to admire over the years, Langella for his stirring and yes, often seductive performances (seen his Dracula? if so, you know what I’m talking about), and Sheen as a very capable character actor, but here they are really magnificent, reprising a tour de force that they first mastered on stage opposite one another. I have not seen all of the Oscar-nominated performances for 08, but feel in some regards that Langella should have won — if not for “impersonating” Nixon (which he was determined not to do — instead, he made him his own character), then certainly for making him unforgettable.
What the film manages to do is make us see beyond pomp to the real men behind the facade — the real Nixon, the real Frost. The disgraced and solitary, even sad, president, and the journalist who mourns the loss of his notoriety, whose peers disregard him as a “non-serious” rival. No matter whose side you favor, at the end of the day ultimately it is about the very honest, brutal fact that even though it is human nature to want to transform those individuals we dislike for various reasons (political, moral, ethical, social, what have you), really they are simply human beings — flawed, perhaps, but with hopes, dreams, and fears just like the rest of us.
Maybe next time we look at someone in hatred, we can pause and remember — we only know our own side of the story.