On The Aisle
by Tony Macklin
Who is Frank Langella? His is not a name that would register at all with most moviegoers, unless you are a Dracula-phile.
In 1979 Langella played Count Dracula on the screen with memorable presence. He had previously done the role on stage. Although he has appeared in several movies and a lot of TV programs, his most visible moment was his stage performance in “Frost/Nixon,” a play by Peter Morgan, which opened in the West End in London and then went on to Broadway.
For his performance as Richard Nixon, Langella won several awards including a Tony. Last year Langella gave an impressive, critically praised performance as an aging professor in New York City in “Starting Out in the Evening.” But hardly anyone saw it.
So when the movie version of “Frost/Nixon” was being cast, Langella might well have been bypassed. Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were mentioned, but Langella survived and got the role.
On screen Langella nails — or fangs — Nixon. Langella does not mimic Nixon; what he does is capture the complex, human spirit of his subject. Stooped and forceful, he goes beyond the persona into the human condition. It’s a transfixing place.
“Frost/Nixon” is about the 1977 television interview between the disgraced former president, who resigned rather than be impeached, and the facile celebrity interviewer who initially seemed unequipped for the experience.
None of the major networks were interested, since Frost and company paid Nixon for the interview. Today the ethical barriers of TV have been obliterated. But after many machinations, the monumental event took place. It had the largest audience for a news program in the history of American television.
Writer Peter Morgan, who wrote “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland” has gifted Langella with a meaty role. Morgan suggests that Nixon agreed to the four-part interview for two reasons. The first is that Nixon believed that he could reclaim his reputation if he could only promote his presidential accomplishments to the viewing public. Secondly was the opportunity to earn a lot of money.
Morgan’s Nixon did not give up his presidency; Nixon fiercely believes it was unjustly wrested from him by venal enemies. He still has confidence in himself, and he knows he will control the interview.
Frost (Michael Sheen), demoted from public sight and now on TV in Australia, also wants to regain his status. For the first three parts of the interview, Nixon overwhelms Frost, changing subjects and giving lengthy self-aggrandizing answers that suck the air out of his anxious interviewer.
Nixon psyches out Frost; before one interview he asks, “You do any fornicating last night?” It shakes the uncertain interviewer. But though Nixon is proud and self-aware, he has curtains of self-delusion and vulnerability. He’s struggling with his demons.
The most pivotal scene in the film is a fabrication. The night before their final session, Morgan has Nixon make a phone call late at night to Frost in his hotel room. It’s a strange mix of fabrication and actuality.
Frost’s suite in the movie is the same one Frost stayed at in the Beverly Hilton in 1977. But the call is invented. In the phantom call, Morgan is able to write a compelling scene in which the inebriated Nixon makes telling comparisons between himself and Frost, saying both were from humble beginnings and therefore always on the outside.
It’s an effective scene, but it has a nagging quality. I also was a bit disconcerted by Morgan’s stag sequence in “The Queen,” another effective invention.
Invention sometimes interferes with verisimilitude. But the phone call adds motivation to the slam-bang last interview, in which Nixon admits finally that he “let the country down.”
Michael Sheen, who portrayed Prime Minister Tony Blair in “The Queen,” reprises his stage role as David Frost. He evolves from amiable innocuousness to steely resolve.
Kevin Bacon adds support as Nixon’s zealously loyal chief of staff. And Patty McCormack, whose major claim to fame is as the child actress in “The Bad Seed” (1956), portrays Pat Nixon.
One of the best moments is when James Reston Jr., a Nixon-hater, meets the former president and his anger withers. Sam Rockwell makes the most of this scene.
Ron Howard directs with his usual workmanlike style. But Frost/Nixon is ultimately Frank Langella’s film. His devil’s dance with Nixon is a haunting, fascinating spectacle.