There’s a moment in director Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, when James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who has written multiple books about Richard Nixon, sees the disgraced ex-president (Frank Langella) in the flesh for the first time and is taken aback: “He’s taller than I imagined.”
Indeed he is. As portrayed by the 6’4” Langella, Richard Nixon is not merely taller than Reston’s imagination, but quite a bit taller than the 5’11” historical record. It’s a physical disparity that might not pose such a problem if the cinematic president did not tower over the actual one in so many other ways as well. Langella is an actor of tremendous gravity and charisma, boasting a deep, sonorous voice and an aura of Mephistophelean self-assurance. Nixon, by contrast, was a shifty, restless schemer, desperately insecure about how others perceived him. He was, in the metaphorical even more than the literal sense of the word, small. This is the irony of Frost/Nixon: Though it chronicles the moment when (in theory) the 37th president of the United States was cut down to size, the movie’s presentation of him is utterly larger than life.
Langella is splendid, he’s just not Richard Nixon. (Give me Dan Hedaya in Dick--with his obliviousness to the joke but vague awareness that somehow it’s on him--any day.) And while the movie built around this central performance is a pleasant enough diversion, it’s a lightweight one, the kind that probably ought to be winning a handful of Emmys for Showtime. Instead, the film tries desperately to inflate itself into importance, arguing that that its subject, the televised Nixon interviews conducted by British celebrity journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) in 1977, were “the trial he never had,” a moment of national closure, the dramatic culmination of Watergate. But they weren’t, as the movie forcefully reminds us at the outset with footage of Nixon’s resignation and helicopter ride into political purgatory. Frost/Nixon isn’t the climactic final act of Watergate. It’s the postscript. (Moreover, the film’s closing lines--“[Nixon] never achieved the rehabilitation he so desperately craved. His most lasting legacy is that, today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix ‘-gate’”--are so wildly off-base that if History could sue, it would.)
As sheer entertainment, Frost/Nixon’s chief shortcoming is imbalance. The film is structured as a high-stakes bout between Frost and Nixon in which the plucky, on-the-ropes lightweight comes back to knock out the ruthless old pro in the final round. But Frost never coheres enough as a character to earn a rooting interest. He’s described as a “playboy,” but is supplied with a girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) for what appears to be the purpose of advertising his monogamy; though there are frequent references to his devotion to parties and nightclubs, we never see any evidence of the hinted-at carousing. Is he a shallow cad in need of redemption or just another lovable underdog? The movie can’t decide, and as a result Sheen’s performance never acquires a third dimension.
The supporting performances are a greater pleasure. Rockwell and Oliver Platt offer some ironic edge as Reston and Bob Zelnick, the investigative reporters hired by Frost to prepare his interrogation, and Matthew Macfadyen is amiably anxious as his long-suffering producer John Birt. In Nixon’s corner, Kevin Bacon growls persuasively as Marine-turned-handler Jack Brennan and Toby Jones self-promotes with gusto as ür-agent Swifty Lazar.
In the end though, they’re all just planets orbiting a celestial object, the great statesman-crook of American legend. In Langella’s hands, Tricky Dick is intelligent, witty, by turns fearsome and endearingly awkward--and ultimately more than a little sad: a man of depths, not all of them dark, undone more than once by the surface-loving eye of the television camera. “It’s impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon,” Reston asserts early in the film. Perhaps despite itself, Frost/Nixon seems to argue otherwise.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.