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THE HORROR MOVIE


It's often instructive, and fun, to look back into our history, even if it's through the notoriously unreliable medium of film. Hollywood has a way of oversimplifying, sensationalizing, and sometimes downright falsifying history that can be as appalling as a massacre and as satisfying as a good meal.

(For a romp through Hollywood's historical farragoes, find a copy of George MacDonald Fraser's “The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now.” Settle in by the stove with a pot of tea or a glass of port and prepare to have a lot of fun.)

Of the history which some of us remember, most of it came to us indirectly through newspapers, radio, and television, so re-living it on film is no great stretch, even if what we see sometimes doesn't jibe with what we remember.

Of what happened in the 1970s I don't remember a whole lot, because that was one of the many periods when I (mercifully) didn't have a television. But even though I didn't see the Frost-Nixon interviews in 1977, I heard about them, and read about them, and there were few who didn't.

The scandal that led to the resignation of our 37th president, the one who gave us the phrase “expletive deleted,” had something about it that was as inexorable as fate, and as tawdry as a bawdy house. David Frost's series of interviews with the former president had the widely-perceived effect of taking the place of the trial Nixon avoided for his wrong-doing, in which admitted (at least) that he had made mistakes, that he had participated in a cover-up, and that he had “let the American people down.”

Whether or not this admission had a cathartic effect on the American people, who had been torn apart by controversy and violence over the Viet Nam conflict, it is certain that more Americans witnessed it than any other media event.

When Peter Morgan set out to write his play, “Frost/Nixon,” he certainly was not bound, as a playwright, to hew to historical accuracy any more than Shakespeare was, or any more than he himself was in his screenplay for “The Queen.” And what a tour-de-force THAT was, both for Morgan and for Helen Mirren, who was later invited to Buckingham Palace, if you can believe it.

What Morgan did in that film was to intercut scenes of possibly historical veracity with scenes that were purely fanciful, to bridge incidents where people seemed to act out of character, supplying psychologically plausible transitions.

In “Frost/Nixon” he does that again, using the actual interviews as a starting point and filling in the in-betweens with educated, and dramatically viable, guesses.

The most dramatic is a late-night phone call from Nixon to Frost, in which the ex-president, several sheets to the wind, goes from self-pity to belligerence, and inadvertently persuades Frost to enter the last interview with a take-no-prisoners attitude.

(When Frost later asks him about the call, Nixon is perturbed because he doesn't remember it. This chimes with one of Henry Kissinger's sensationalist memories of “running the country” when the president had drunk himself into a stupor.)

Director Ron Howard had the good sense to go with the two accomplished actors who had played the title roles on stage, both in London and New York.

Michael Sheen is making a fine career out of playing hapless British celebrities – he was Tony Blair in “The Queen” - and here he lets us see behind the genial front to the ravening hunger of the man Jonathan Miller once called “the bubonic plagiarist.” He has to be Top Dog, to out-maneuver the Old Pro, even a discredited one. And yes, many people had haircuts just like that in 1977.

Frank Langella used to be the handsomest man in film (remember the 1979 “Dracula?”), but he has so submerged himself in the character of Nixon that at times, in spite of the lack of jowl, some of us old-timers find ourselves thinking, by God, that's him!

Howard follows the originals closely, I'm told, in re-creating the interviews, and in the transitions he makes good use of the hand-held camera to give a jiggly, nervous, documentary feel to the jiggly, nervous proceedings.

Jonathan Aitken, one of Nixon's official biographers, says that "Frost did not ambush Nixon during the final interview into a damaging admission of guilt. What the former president 'confessed' about Watergate was carefully pre-planned. It was only with considerable help and advice from his adversary's team that Frost managed to get much more out of Nixon, in the closing sequences, by reining in his fierce attitude and adopting a gentler approach."

Could be; I couldn't say. Makes me wish I had had a television.