Lifting the partition between legend and reality, Frost/Nixon treats archival footage from the Watergate scandal as living tissue, allowing snapshots of visual media to impart truth onto a fictionalization. As the film dances between journalistic montage, mock documentary and melodrama, Ron Howard extrapolates personal turmoil from the pages of history, reanimating the iconic figure of Richard Nixon into a reflection of late-century cynicism and human fallibility.
The politics surrounding Nixon’s presidential resignation and subsequent ostracization are merely a pretext for Howard’s fascination with the influence of television, transforming his infrequent fits of moralization into forgivable peccadillos. He structures his exposé like a broadcast news package, swiftly cutting between interview excerpts and meticulous period recreations before panning back to reveal a mirror image on an adjacent screen. By juxtaposing the camera eye atop the naked eye, Howard fashions a metaphor for the infinite access of televised media, evincing the power of the picture tube and its ability to reinterpret fact.
The irony of criticizing the subjectivity of the medium with a feature film isn’t lost on the production team and they reinforce Peter Morgan’s words with robust characterizations, escaping the cult of personality by way of interpretive nuance. Michael Sheen’s portrayal of talk show host David Frost avoids the “white knight” accolades, quivering delicately before the prospect of failing at his greatest endeavor: eliciting an apology from America’s crooked commander-in-chief on national television. Frank Langella’s Nixon is just as anxious and uncertain, paralyzed by his own paranoia, but willing to mask the pain beneath layers of camera-ready bluster.
Both men’s desires intersect at The Nixon Interviews, positioned here as Frost’s ploy for American celebrity and Nixon’s plea for re-entry into the political sphere. Howard parallels shots to draw the leads shoulder to shoulder, marrying glimpses of lifted cocktail glasses and furrowed brows, observing the pair in despondent states of self-medication and internal conflict. Contrarily, the external “battle” they conduct in conversation is tête-à-tête and thoroughly dominated by Nixon’s crude masculinity, elevating each verbal assault on Frost’s “effeminate” loafers and swinging lifestyle to the ferocity of chemical warfare. These hawkish “anecdotes” of militaristic rule, which occupy the lion’s share of their four-part series, only serve to make his undoing all the more tragic, ultimately playing out before his eyes as Cambodian fatalities flickering on an A/V screen.
In a bout of conscience or intoxication, the 37th President shows his hand to his opponent in an unsolicited phone call, compelling Frost to take their dialogue “no holds barred.” As each petty and furious word spills forth from Nixon’s salivant mouth, exposing a wealth of personal insecurities to an equally desperate listener, our empathy deepens, redeeming a black mark in American history by humanizing its culprit.
Frost/Nixon (Universal Pictures, 2008)
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan
Photographed by Salvatore Tonino