How important are lace-up shoes for men? According to Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), in Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” a man who doesn’t wear laces is less than a man. That small opinion is a big part of this movie that uses the famous interviews by David Frost (Michael Sheen) of the deposed president as its plot.
The movie opens with a short history lesson on Watergate. This climaxes with Nixon giving his resignation and going off into exile in California. He is an old political lion who still wants to be in the “game” and longs for a way back East, to the political nerve center.
David Frost is an interviewer who sees Nixon as a person who can help him get back to America. He is in his own exile in Australia, doing a banal show that features Houdini wannabes and the latest musical act at the top of the pops.
Frost wants his table back at Sardi’s. The scene where he explains why he wants back reminds one of Crash Davis’ speech in “Bull Durham.” Crash wanted back into the “show” and Frost speaks of America in that way. Frost concocts the interviews as the method to bring him back into the American limelight. But he has one huge problem: No one will pay him to do it.
None of the networks will take his show because they see it as “checkbook journalism.” He forges on and hires two investigative journalists to help him research Nixon. One is a tried-and-true journalist (Oliver Platt) that works for ABC News. The other (Sam Rockwell) is part of the liberal intelligentsia; he wants to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.
“Frost/Nixon,” an enjoyable movie, shows the collision of these forces. First, there is the battle of Frost and finances. Nixon demands a $200,000 payment upon agreement to do the interviews. Frost does not have the money, but he writes a personal check. The researchers want Frost to dig into Nixon, but Frost is distracted by the life of a celebrity and producer of the interviews to do the work needed to get from Nixon the responses they want.
And then there is the sparring between Nixon and Frost in the interviews. Nixon may be an old lion, but he is a smart lion who knows how to use words like a street hood uses a switchblade. He cuts through Frost like a hot knife through butter. Nixon prevails in the first three interviews and looks to be bringing himself back into the spotlight. It’s not what Frost’s handlers and researchers wanted. The whole thing looks to be a failure.
Ron Howard directs this movie knowing something of the power of television. All remember him as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Howard reminds us how television can make one rise and another fall. Nixon, in the movie, tells Frost of the little problem of sweat on his upper lip, which caused him to lose the debate with John Kennedy.
The movie also helps us see into the soul of a man that many of the baby boomer generation came to loathe. Frank Langella, who will surely be nominated for an Oscar, presents Nixon as a man who had inferiority beliefs about himself, but is driven by the notion that he was just as good as anyone else.
His desire is to show the elites he was as smart as they and worthy of being an elite himself. We see his attitude of using any means necessary when he tells an aide to call some Cubans he knows to bug Frost’s offices to get an edge on the debates. Langella plays the old lion as wounded in ways he does not readily reveal, but can be seen on the field of battle. These wounds ultimately defeat the man and his presidency.
Michael Sheen plays David Frost as a man in over his head. His Frost is a man nearly drowning in the deep end of the pool of politics and media he readily jumped into. Nixon reminds Frost that on the field of battle, only one is the victor. He also reminds Frost that they both, whether Frost will admit it or not, are very much alike. Frost, however, wore loafers.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for some language.
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan, based on his play
Cast: Richard Nixon: Frank Langella; David Frost: Michael Sheen; James Reston, Jr.: Sam Rockwell; Jack Brennan: Kevin Bacon; John Birt: Matthew Macfadyen; Bob Zelnick: Oliver Platt.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.