Though Olbermann/Bush sounds to me like a much more fun movie, Frost/Nixon works just as well as an allegory. It seems impossible that we’ll one day see a televised mea culpa from the defensive, unreflective Bush, yet viewers in 1977 saw one — or close to it, anyway — from the disgraced Richard M. Nixon, three years after he resigned. Based on Peter Morgan’s play, Frost/Nixon says as much about media manipulation as about the war of wills between Nixon (Frank Langella) and his TV interlocutor, David Frost (Michael Sheen). The slightly foppish, womanizing British talk-show host took on the gruff, shrewd trickster-god of American politics, bringing a butter knife to a gunfight before he figured out he’d better upgrade.
Fluidly if unimaginatively directed by Ron Howard, the movie spends a lot of time on the preparations for the 28-hour series of interviews. Frost, who has roughly as much credibility as Merv Griffin, has the devil’s own time trying to get funding and advertisers for the four-program event. He’s pressured by advisors James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to go for the throat, to bag the great elephant and extract the confession and apology Nixon was never required to deliver in court. Nixon, for his part, is tired of speaking at Republican dinners and hauling out banal anecdotes; his own loyal advisor, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), wants the old man to stay strong and monopolize the process. At times we could be watching the run-up to an instantly legendary boxing match at Madison Square Garden.
Frost’s current arm candy Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) is shuffled into the deck to pretty up the proceedings, which is appreciated, I guess. Otherwise, Frost/Nixon is a masculine affair — in every sense of the word, complete with a drunken late-night call from Nixon to the befuddled Frost. The men are pretty much polar opposites, regarding one another warily across generational and cultural barbed-wire fences. Frost seems more or less apolitical, though — he doesn’t share his advisors’ hatred for Nixon, doesn’t take his offenses personally. To Frost, this is simply the television coup of a lifetime — as long as he can transcend his cocktail-chat instincts and rise to the historical occasion.
As opposed to Doubt, which used none of the original stage cast, Frost/Nixon imports Frank Langella and Michael Sheen from their well-honed roles on the boards. Sheen, also currently in theaters as a werewolf in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (talk about range), has gotten ignored by all the awards ceremonies, though his Frost, a trickier part, is an integral half of this contest. Optimistic and genial by nature, Frost must develop a sense of outrage, and Sheen walks a fine line between engaging politesse and political engagement. Langella, of course, warrants the attention paid; his Nixon is a wounded bear, snorfling heavily over affronts real and imagined, aware that he must drain some of his poison by coming clean but unsure how. Langella rumbles and rants fearsomely, though his best moments are his quietest and least calibrated for the theater’s back row.
What difference did it make whether Nixon owned up to his crimes? Or whether Frost, rather than, say, Mike Wallace, was the one to get it on tape? Well, the former was increasingly important to Nixon, the latter decreasingly important to Frost. The two men co-created a space wherein Nixon could say, with considerable regret, that he had let his country down. Frost/Nixon is not only about a journalistic scoop; it’s an account of one of those rare acts of personal and political synergy, in which the men came to their respective chairs with different agendas and wound up getting their wishes, one way or the other.