What Dick Did

rexfrost What Dick DidFrost/Nixon
Running time 122 minutes
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt

If timing is everything, what better moment than the eve of a new presidency to unveil Ron Howard’s riveting, psychologically astute film version of Frost/Nixon? With post-operative America still in intensive care after surviving eight years of George Bush, it seems like a perfect time to remind the world that we once endured a presidency that was even worse.

This is the encompassing but tightly wound stage play by award-winning writer Peter Morgan, who previously dissected the private drama behind the scenes of Princess Diana’s death in the marvelous film The Queen. When it comes to quality scandal-mongering, he seems to hold a patent on how to unlock all the right doors to reveal the true chaos behind the tabloids. Brilliantly reteaming Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who electrified Broadway in the stage version, Frost/Nixon is the viable dramatization of the high-wire act that talk show host David Frost pulled off to force a television confession from the deposed president, Richard Nixon, that he broke the law and concealed evidence of his crimes in office, which forced his resignation and destroyed his political career. The four-hour event that became the most widely viewed show in television history is also remembered as its most celebrated autopsy. 

August, 1976. In the aftermath of Watergate, at the height of America’s darkest political scandal, the 37th president of the U.S. has resigned in disgrace while a couple hundred million people shake their fists and demand to know what happened. Cagey and evasive, Nixon exiled himself to his seaside home in San Clemente, denying his guilt in the Watergate affair and avoiding the media, until Frost—a foreigner with career problems of his own—found the key to exploiting the former commander in chief’s misfortune better than anyone else. The key word, of course, was money. Nixon’s agent was the one and only Irving “Swifty” Lazar, who later became my own agent, so I can testify from personal experience that he could squeeze five bucks out of a dollar bill and have change left over. Frost was so determined to resuscitate his own sagging ratings that he allowed Lazar to negotiate a deal for a series of “no holds barred” interviews, demanding for Nixon total editorial control and a sum of $600,000, which Frost didn’t have. (An early clue to Nixon’s character: He would do anything for money.) Forcing that flashing smile that always distracted from the wheels in his mind that never stopped rolling, Frost bluffed his way into an impossible deal for a show that, after he was turned down by every network, he ended up syndicating himself and owning outright. The gamble paid off in spades, but nothing about doing business with Tricky Dick was ever easy, and Ron Howard catalogs every twist and turn of the adventure with entertaining relish.

The film shows the dedication, toil and tension of Frost’s idealistic research team (Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen); their leader’s annoying ability to juggle his workload and his overextended libido with main squeeze Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall); and their head-on clashes with Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), who encouraged his boss to do the interviews to reverse negative public opinion and regain his former importance. Another clue to the Nixon persona: He craved power. “The hunger in my belly is still there,” he confides in a rare moment of candor. As for embarrassing Watergate questions, Mr. Bacon guarantees: “Nothing to worry about. It’s not as if there’s going to be any new revelations. This stuff has been culled over a million times. No one has pinned anything on you.” And so, fueled by a need for cash and glory, the decimated commander in chief proceeds. The moment when the bull is finally gored is a long time coming, but everything leading up to it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

In no time, Nixon returns to true character, threatening to spy on Frost with the aid of an old friend in the C.I.A. (“Just a joke,” he says, unconvincingly.) Meanwhile, Frost’s crack investigators fine-comb the files on all of the Watergate defendants, and on Nixon’s wiretapping everyone, including his own brother Donald; opening people’s mail; breaking and entering; abusing executive privilege; invading Cambodia without Congressional approval. You cannot watch this movie without drawing parallels to the past eight years, and you go away stunned by the similarities. But sometimes there is also fun. In a lighter moment, Mr. Platt is hilarious when he imitates Nixon castigating John F. Kennedy’s reputation as a White House serial sex addict, nailing everything to the walls that moved: “Even had a go at Checkers once—poor little bitch was never the same!”

Ironically, in the end, they were arrogant adversaries who underestimated each other. Frost’s thirst for ambush and Nixon’s talent for stonewalling, avoiding everything crucial and self-incriminating, backfired. Those interviews in March of 1977 reveal weaknesses and unattractive flaws in both men. Between Nixon’s vain concern for the perspiration on his upper lip and Frost’s relentless drive to nail him, you see two egos out of control. There is Nixon countering with long, filibustering attempts to make himself likable, while shocking the TV crew with his off-camera vulgarity; and there is Frost, swallowing the bait to do anything for a rating. It’s like a championship fight, with Frost’s team badgering him to stop being respectful and go for the jugular, and Nixon’s advisers urging him to focus, thrust and parry. The movie covers it all, from Frost’s fear of failure to Nixon’s inebriated surprise phone call on the eve of the final interview, declaring himself ready for battle. It’s liberal, Nixon-hating columnist James Reston (a feisty Sam Rockwell) who pulls the last rabbit from the hat that forces the president to fall on his own sword while Frost’s eyes glaze over with triumph. Nixon’s reputation as a world leader never recovered.

Ron Howard’s direction is precise and controlled, and despite “opening up” for the screen, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his own play is undiluted. Except for a glimpse of the actual garden at San Clemente, the opening up doesn’t amount to much, anyway. Marina del Rey plays Sydney, Australia, and the rest of it was filmed on Hollywood sound stages and the Universal backlot—including the streets of London. It’s the story that counts. When the most famous man on the planet self-destructs, we want to know why. Fine performances add to the excellence (Toby Jones, in Infamous the better of the two movie Truman Capotes, is a perfect Swifty Lazar, and that’s grown-up Patty McCormack, legendary in The Bad Seed, as Pat Nixon), but Frost/Nixon remains a duel of semantics fought by two of the leading fencers money can buy. Frank Langella’s lockjaw delivery, grinding words like gristle, has a creepy effect. He doesn’t make you like or forgive what Nixon did to his country, but in an odd way, his deep and complex sincerity makes you understand the man. His is the more colorful performance, but Michael Sheen matches his every move. Having been interviewed by David Frost on more than one occasion, I can testify to the accuracy of his portrayal: the disingenuousness beneath the superficial friendliness, the frozen smile while one eye remains focused on audience reaction to see if he’s going over. Like everyone else, he goes over big in Frost/Nixon. It’s a terrific film.

rreed@observer.com