More than 30 years after he resigned from office, Richard M. Nixon has transcended politics and history and become epic. He has been portrayed on film by Anthony Hopkins, the man who won an Oscar playing Hannibal the Cannibal. And his trip to China has been the subject of an opera, the art form most suited for larger-than-life stories of melodrama and scope. Nixon is like a Shakespearean character, the ability and ambition and the tragic flaws of Richard III, Lear, or Othello.
No one work of art or history will ever contain this man of extraordinary contradictions, but in one of this year’s best films, based on the Tony award-winning play, writer Peter Morgan, director Ron Howard, and actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take a pivotal moment in Nixon’s life and make it into a gripping story of the craving of two very different men for power and acceptance and how it plays into a contest of wit and will that becomes a larger story of accountability and meaning.
Richard Nixon was all but exiled to his house on the ocean in San Clemente following his resignation from the Presidency in 1974, relegated to working on his memoirs and finding excuses not to play golf. British broadcaster David Frost was also in a kind of an exile following cancellation of his New York-based talk show, relegated to lightweight celebrity interviews and presiding over televised stunts. Both were desperate for a way to get back into a position of influence. Frost proposed a series of interviews, even though he had no background as a journalist or historian. And Nixon accepted, in part because Frost had not background as a journalist or historian and in part because he would get paid $600,000 and a percentage of the profits. Negotiated by uber-agent Swifty Lazar (a shrewd Toby Jones) and widely criticized as “checkbook journalism,” the payment may have been unorthodox but it was most likely one of the most important factors in eliciting the unprecedented level of candor from the former President, not because of the incentives but because it shifted the balance of power from the subject to the interviewer.
It was also a stunning example of the precise conflict at the heart of so many of Nixon’s failures — his desperate need for approval. He accepted the interview as a way to try to regain his reputation as an elder statesman and remind America of his accomplishments and value. But once again, as it did in 1960 in the first televised Presidential debate, he was defeated by television, but what a character refers to as the power of the close-up. In yet another of this film’s infinite regression of paradoxes, the close-up that most exposes Nixon comes closest to creating sympathy for him. It is one thing to read about the evasions and cover-ups and corruption. It is another to see his face, the desperation, the soul-destroying awareness of how far he was from what he wanted to be.
Staged like a boxing match between the aging champ and the upstart, Howard and Morgan show us the combatants in training, sparring, retreating to their corners for some splashes of water, and then back into it, each going for the knock-out punch. They manage to create sympathy for both men without any shyness about their flaws. Both have some monstrous qualities but neither is a monster.
Sheen and Langella, after months performing together on stage, fully inhabit the roles and are exquisitely attuned to each other. Langella has the more showy character, but Sheen is every bit as precise. Watch the way he orders his lunch. In a millisecond he conveys all of his skills and all of his vulnerabilities. Even in the middle of an important conversation with his producer he stops and gives his full attention to the person behind the counter at the cafeteria and he orders in a way that perfectly demonstrates his charm, his showy self-deprecation, and his need to be noticed and approved of by every person on the planet.
And then there is Nixon, that infinitely interesting jumble of contradictions. Langella shows us his glimmers of self-awareness that cannot add up to meaningful insight. Morgan has taken the privilege of a writer to make it truthful without being accurate in every detail. For one thing, it has better dialogue. Morgan’s “The Queen” was another story of politics, celebrity, history, and conflict between two strong public characters (the younger one played by Michael Sheen) . As he did there, his selection of the elements of the story he wants to highlight and explore allows him to make this men not just historical figures but symbols of duality and contradiction and ultimately to deliver some over-arching messages about what it means to be human.