"Of course it’s a duel — and I like that!” ~ Nixon, in Frost/Nixon
I am one of the remaining handful of White House correspondents who covered the final years of the presidency of Richard Nixon.
In this absolutely superb film, I knew — from vivid recollection — what was coming. But in one of the most masterful and memorable portrayals in movie history, Frank Langella was a reincarnation of our nation’s only resigned chief executive.
Not that Langella is close to being a Nixon double, or that he attempted exact mimicry. Not that, but rather one of the greatest of all our actors makes this historic figure come absolutely alive.
Langella’s skill, along with absolutely flawless writing and direction, doesn’t just expose the full degree of Nixon villainy. It also, quite marvelously, moved me, and I suspect the rest of the audience, to compassion.
The only casting with less than four-star significance was that of Mrs. Nixon — who I particularly remember from one of those church services in the White House when we came through the post-service receiving line, when she remarked (with no sign of rebuke but with curiosity), “I noticed that you were writing something during the sermon.” I explained that, as a religious columnist as well as White House correspondant, I was covering the sermon — at which she chuckled, and so did Nixon.
Otherwise, this cast was perfection — especially Michael Sheen as TV talk show host David Frost, of whom Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff Jack Brennan declared, “Frost is not in your intellectual class, sir.”
That, as the finale of the four interviews demonstrates, was a Titanic-like disregard of a master-interviewer iceberg.
Sheen/Frost held off a gang of Nixon-hating aides long enough to make the finale an absolute masterpiece of expose.
One of this gang in particular — Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr. — is furiously eager to go for the resigned president’s throat. He becomes so detestably eager as to suggest venom amounting to blood-lust (and while I was appalled, Rockwell’s acting was monumental).
Nixon was paid $500,000 for this 4-part interview by Frost’s investors. While he had much less political knowledge than his target, Frost really knew how to use that blinding power of a TV camera. He had a relentless desire in probing through the reductive power of the close-up.
One of the most memorable lines from the movie comes from Nixon in the final taping: “I let down our system of government. I let the American people down. And I’m gonna have to carry that with me for the rest of my life.”