Dir. Ron Howard. Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Matthew Macfadyen
Howard Zinn is probably the most important historian that the United States has ever produced. (Sorry, Charles Beard. I love you too.) Regardless of how you feel about him – in other words, regardless of whether or not you think “historical revisionism” is an honest term – he is the face of a sea change in the way Americans view history. Before Zinn, the Great White Hope or the Great White Disgrace was the avatar of History, the Franklin D. Roosevelt or the George Washington or the Christopher Columbus who, through a series of discrete turning points, changed events to his favor. This is the vision of history that the AP programs in American high schools are being attuned to, largely because of interventionist legislatures. Zinn, and those like him, realize that history is made up of people, not of Persons, and that there is no turning point that can be discerned by historical algebra, but a series of moments which can only be described by calculus.
Unsurprisingly, this sea change has wetted the toes of American cinema and other performing arts. In the 1930s, nominees (and winners) of the Oscar for Best Actor were flooded with historical personages: Disraeli, Henry VIII, Louis Pasteur, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln. The historical men of the 2000s have a somewhat different flavor, men whose accomplishments are less all-encompassing or dictatorial than those who came before. Abraham Lincoln took the prize for 2012, but Harvey Milk did it first. Ray Charles was preceded by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Perhaps more than the actors are the stories themselves. Real-life historical dramas are at a premium in Hollywood, but at this point no one wants to see a biopic anymore. (Even Lincoln decided to narrow its focus to a month or so in 1865.) What the public wants now is the “untold true story” of some event that comes to stand in for a larger one, or of the small event that is supposed to be seen as the last turning point before a Turning Point. The King’s Speech, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture from that premise within the last five years, and The Social Network, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Imitation Game, and Selma are all examples of period pieces that variously stand in for post-“I Have a Dream” Civil Rights, gay rights, the crooked ’80s, and Facebook.
Some years are lousy with this kind of film, but 2008 has always stuck out to me. It’s not the first year that does it – one could make the case that 2005 (Munich, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck) is the tipping point – but Milk and Frost/Nixon were released within a week of each other in 2008, and the two of them are both so zealous about recreating a nearly identical stretch of the late ’70s. While Harvey Milk was fending off Rick Stokes for political office, David Frost was weaseling a confession out of Richard Nixon. This post is not about Milk, mostly because I want to devote a zillion words to it at another time.
One of the most pervasive cliches about American politics, from outsiders who are unhappy with the political culture in this country, is that we are too often inclined to make politics into sports. We measure up Democrats and Republicans against each other like they’re the Red Sox and the Yankees, arguing about which side is “right,” as if it’s an either/or situation. Because there are two parties and people “win” elections, and because each team has players who go against each other in “single combat,” our language betrays us. It is very easy to get sucked into Democrats vs. Republicans, just as it is easy to get sucked into a late December Steelers-Ravens game. That analogy seems especially apt to me: the thrill of competition makes us forget that both of the teams in question are loathsome.
Frost/Nixon is a movie which desperately wants to treat one of these minor moments like a sporting event. Argo, for all of its shortcomings, doesn’t make Ben Affleck vs. the Ayatollah into a hockey game. (Whether you think it’s because Frost/Nixon is ready to treat Nixon as a person, while the Iranians in Argo don’t quite rate that privilege is, again, another blog post.) A Few Good Men, which is of course fictional, is still the closest parallel to Frost/Nixon, and the reason it’s a better movie is because it doesn’t resort to sports cliches to function.
Frost/Nixon works very hard to make itself feel like a sports movie, an underdog story, a come-from-behind feel-gooder. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s majordomo, compares the first couple minutes of the Frost-Nixon interview to a pair of boxers in the ring, in which the challenger receives his first blow from the champion and then realizes what on earth he has gotten himself into. Brennan tells Pat Nixon (Patty McCormack) that, three sessions in, her husband is pitching an “11-0 shutout.” During Nixon’s (Langella) late-night phone call to Frost (Sheen), Frost tells Nixon that only one of them can win. It’s not limited to dialogue, either; Frost’s team and Nixon’s team sit on couches in front of the television, reacting to every point that either man scores. Perhaps most of all, Frost is set up as the plucky underdog who comes up with the idea, scrounges up a team of scruffy looking nerf headers (Oliver Platt and especially Sam Rockwell, who we never are allowed to take seriously), and then finds himself down 11-0 not just in the interviews but financially and professionally. It is made very clear that if Frost can’t stick the landing, then he’s going to take a massive tumble, one that he probably won’t be able to overcome. The montage where Frost starts going through the tapes and transcripts in an effort to educate himself before the final interview feels off because he’s not in a gym.
The place where it starts to back off of the sports bandwagon and hitch itself more neatly to the A Few Good Men train instead comes towards the end, in the last interview. If only Frost and his team had seen A Few Good Men, they would have recognized that the big bad guy wants to confess; he wants to let everyone know that he’s getting away with it, and it’s killing him to keep it inside. All you have to do is provoke the man into a confession. The scenes are not identical. Aaron Sorkin, idiot savant that he is, has to give Jessup a monologue which defends the right of a soldier to do what it is necessary to protect a nation’s freedom. (And don’t give me some guff about how that makes Jessup look bad because his version happens to be illegal. Galloway gives a very similar statement about what Marines do earlier in the movie. Once you’ve decided that protecting your nation is a weaponized process, you’re already Jessup.) Peter Morgan, like Sorkin, is moving his play to cinema; unlike Sorkin, he has subject material to go off of. “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal” is the go-to line. In terms of mystique, it’s a better fit with “You can’t handle the truth!” In terms of what it does to the plot, it’s much closer to Jessup’s response to whether or not he ordered the Code Red: “You’re goddamn right I did!” (By the way, can we just say, just for a second, that maybe having Kevin Bacon on your side is a curse? As the prosecutor in A Few Good Men, he’s more or less on Jessup’s side, and as Nixon’s right-hand man, he is on hand to witness the biggest confession of the ’70s. The presence of Kevin Bacon is Veritaserum.)
It’s not plagiarism, the similarities to A Few Good Men. Many of the chords that are struck are practically identical, but the scenes don’t unfold beautifully, side-by side. Nothing in Frost/Nixon compares to Jessup’s promises about what he plans on doing to Kaffee’s skull, for example. But the play for catharsis through secular confession is similar. And the relief that we feel for Kaffee, and especially for Downey and Dawson, is the same kind of relief we feel for Reston and Frost.
The cast, including the dudes playing Reston and Frost, is fine. Michael Sheen’s Frost is the main character, but exists only to frustrate other characters and pry the truth out of Nixon; Frost is the mirror, who we are able to look into and play ourselves, trying the public officials who have so richly disappointed us. Sheen’s inability to lead a scene as Frost, though, means that his posse – Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt – seem even more meaningless. Macfadyen, playing Sheen’s producer and defender, not in that order, is affable. Platt as Rosencrantz and Rockwell as Guildenstern are the type of socially conscious but personally unconscious liberals that the real Richard Nixon wishes he had to rail against. Rebecca Hall is most unsettling to me. She plays Caroline Cushing, whose most important job is to be the woman who literally stands beside her man. She meets Frost on a plane, falls for him, and then spends the rest of the film asking him if he’d rather have steak or fish and don’t worry that Nixon is kicking your butt in these interviews. Did Ron Howard and his team think no one would see the movie if there wasn’t a pretty face in there somewhere? I don’t know what else her function is. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to this because Rebecca Hall has fascinated me for years. She was in Starter for Ten, a British movie I really like, in 2006, and in that same year played Christian Bales’ (spoiler alert in that there apostrophe!) wife in The Prestige. In 2008 appeared in Frost/Nixon and starred in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Since then, she was in the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC version of Parade’s End, and had a part in Iron Man 3. At 33, she has a significant stretch of career ahead of her, but I don’t know anymore that she’s the next Anne Hathaway.
It is utterly different than the relief we feel for Nixon, who is barely part of this cast. Langella’s Nixon is a person, and because Nixon is so rarely allowed to be a person anymore in pop culture, we do feel a certain kind of lift for him as well. Langella is misused throughout the film. He is marvelous in almost every scene, even if his Nixon sometimes sounds more like Jimmy Stewart with the croup. The scene where he drunk dials and drunk berates Michael Sheen about the presumed similarities between the two men is often held up as a major vertebra of the film, and of course his performance as the Nixon who is willing to apologize to the nation for letting them down is powerful. I had been cynical about the movie for one hundred minutes, and he still got me. He’s also funny: he drops lines about hiring some Cubans with CIA background for a burglary and then all but says, “Gotcha!” and there’s that marvelous scene where he meets a dachshund and plays that off for basset hound humor. Yet much of this film – especially that phone call – feels like they’ve revved up the Langella engine without ever putting the car into gear. There is significant sound and fury, but not nearly enough movement. It chooses to put all of the movement into the film at one time, when Nixon prepares to confess. But the rest of the film, sadly, stalls over and over again.