Frost thaws Nixon’s hubristic silence

January 15, 2009

In the pop culture psyche of many Americans, Richard Nixon’s life and career ends at the moment when his most notorious picture was taken: arms raised in the air waving two identical peace signs. Not much is commonly known about the last 20 years of his life, which were spent in quiet disgrace on the left coast. Ron Howard’s new film Frost/Nixon gives a riveting glimpse into the former President’s post-Watergate years and paints Nixon as a complex, conflicted character, without excusing him for the crimes he committed while in office.

Frost/Nixon, adapted from the play by Peter Morgan of the same name, tells the story of David Frost (Michael Sheen), a semi-successful British talk show host who finagled a series of interviews with Nixon in 1977. In the process of organizing and conducting the interviews, Nixon (Frank Langella) forms a strange bond with Frost. Frost aims to get the American people what they have been waiting for: an apology and Nixon’s admittance of his crimes and the peculiar relationship between the interviewer and his subject brews a strong form of drama.

The film tends to drag when explaining the complicated process that went into financing the interviews. The major networks refused to pay the four million dollars Nixon wanted for his time, and Frost was forced to arrange his own advertisers and syndicate the interviews himself.

Fortunately, passionate performances by its two lead roles and superb camerawork help Frost/Nixon overcome its flat notes. In one sweeping shot, a hotel door opens and the camera follows over the left shoulder of a butler, who enters Nixon’s room to find him jogging in place in front of a window displaying a gorgeous view of the ocean. Nixon looks presidential and disgraced all at once: his tall frame holds his head up high, but he’s been reduced to jogging desperately inside a tiny room while sporting a garish track suit.

Later, Howard deftly captures the crucial moments of Frost’s last interview session with the president by focusing on the tension between the two and by relying on a television monitor on the interview set to portray how the rest of America saw the interviews—depicting a close-up of Nixon’s tortured face splayed across the television. Langella deftly refrains from playing Nixon as a caricature but rather portrays him as a curmudgeonly, sometimes unexpectedly jovial old man who living with the embarrassment and frustration of not being able to exercise his intellect.

Though it goes a long way in humanizing the 37th president, Frost/Nixon by no means exonerates the man. It tells the story of just how hard the country had to work to convince the president that he hadn’t just made mistakes, but that he had utterly failed them as a leader. Frost turns Nixon-the-monster into a human, not to give him pity or sympathy, but to cut through to the hard-fought and complicated truths behind the man’s flawed though fascinating character.

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