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Frost/Nixon (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Run Time 122 Minutes.

History is made by the people who write it, not the people who actually do the deeds, and this film is a prime example. Director Ron Howard may still look like a bald little, guileless Opie from “The Andy Griffith Show,” but this movie is sinister. It stands for the proposition that Howard’s thought processes haven’t advanced much since he played a 9-year-old in those halcyon days of yore. Here’s what Howard said on CSPAN:

“The only thing that is kind of quaint about the story at all is the fact that the Nixon crimes pale by comparison with, you know, what we have been reading about and hearing about in the last few years.” (emphasis added).

I’m not going to get into a comparison of what Richard Nixon did in Watergate and what President Bush has done to defend the country against Islamic extremists. Suffice it to say that the mind boggles at such lunacy expressed by Howard. But what he says does give us his mindset in presenting this story and making this movie. He had an agenda.

Writers creating history that didn’t actually happen go back a long way, at least to the War of the Roses in the 15th Century. Even though Nixon was no saint, Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is grotesque, reminiscent of the way Shakespeare portrayed Richard III with a hump to make him much more of a monster than he really was. In fact, Richard III wasn’t a monster at all; modern evidence indicates he was a well-spoken man without any physical deformity who was demonized by Tudor writers after he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet dynasty and started the era of the Tudors. Henry VIII was the second Tudor king. Henry VIII’s boon companion, Thomas More, wrote a scurrilous, disputed history that maligned Richard. It was that account upon which Shakespeare relied when he wrote his play during the reign of Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, and the fourth Tudor monarch. In 2002, however, the BBC sponsored a ballot to name the “100 greatest Britons” and Richard III was included. It’s taken five centuries for Richard to start to shuffle off the mud that was splattered on him by Tudor historians. So that’s the way the left treats any Republican or conservative. Nixon was no saint, but he was no Langella, either. Langella adopts Shakespeare’s portrait of Richard III for his impersonation of Nixon, in that he walks stooped over. It almost looks like he has a hump. Worse, although Nixon could be ponderous, his speech patterns weren’t anywhere near the caricature Langella creates.

For almost an hour, this isn’t the famous interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost (Michael Sheen). Rather, it’s the setup. Frost was a surprise choice to interview the former President, considered a lightweight by his media compatriots. Frost was better known for his high living and womanizing than for his hard-hitting journalism.

For the first hour we see him desperately trying to get the financing to put on the interview since all the networks had blackballed Frost’s interview out of pique that they couldn’t get it for themselves. Frost ended up having to commit his own money to the project and paid Nixon $600,000 up front.

This film is disappointing to someone who lived through the Nixon era as did I (I had lunch in the White House Mess the day after Gerald Ford was sworn in as Nixon’s successor) and who saw the Frost/Nixon interviews when they were telecast.

The star of the movie isn’t Langella, although he’s getting all the ink. The star for me is Sheen, who actually does do an expert recreation of David Frost, although he makes him a lot more likeable than the real Frost who always came across as pretty arrogant. The film paints Frost as being pushed around by Nixon until the final interview when, in true Hollywood fashion, Frost scores a touchdown with little time remaining on the clock. It just takes a long time to get there.

The film ends with James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), an anti-Nixon hack who was one of Frost’s two advisors while prepping for the interview, wrapping it up at the end of the film and applying the coup de grace to Nixon by stating that he was never “rehabilitated” and implying that he never again regained any influence. However, I know this not to be true. I was fairly close to one of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” the four men who were behind his rise to power. I dated his daughter in college and was in contact with him throughout Reagan’s 1980 campaign. He told me that they received abundant advice from lots of people, but by far the most astute and best advice they received from anyone was from Richard Nixon. Despite what director Howard would have you believe, Nixon wrote several best-selling books and was respected by the people who counted.

I’d like to score the film as a big miss because of its unfortunate political bias, but Sheen does a good job and it is interesting. The sad fact is that Nixon had enough weaknesses that had Howard chosen to tell the story honestly and straight up, Nixon probably wouldn’t have come out much better then he does here.

Howard inserts scenes showing an inebriated Nixon calling Frost late at night before the final interview and making lots of statements against his interest. Later, Frost mentions this to Nixon and he can’t remember it. Did it happen? Did Frost invent it? Did Howard invent it? Regardless, unless there is irrefutable evidence that it happened, it shouldn’t have been included in the movie.

Even so, Howard, for all his political naiveté, is a sometimes talented director, and this is a sometimes entertaining film.

December 9, 2008