Normally, I think of Ron Howard as the Midas of mediocrity – everything he touches turns to boring. So, what went right with Frost/Nixon?
(If you’re totally unaware of the last 40 years of American history, spoiler alert.)
There’s a moment near the end of the Frost/Nixon in which Frank Langella’s Nixon, shaken from his trailer-worthy excited utterance (“I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!”), stumbles out of the house in which the interview has been taking place. Outside is a crowd, which we have seen him glad-hand his way through numerous times by this point. But in the wake of his disastrous final interview, the equation is changed. Tricky Dick is out of tricks. He’s surrounded, seeing himself as he’s seen. Fumbling for a safe interaction, he approaches a woman standing on the sidewalk with her dog and asks, as if unsure of the answer, “Is this what you call a dachshund?” The woman proffers the dog and, his fingers curled into loose, arthritic claws, Nixon skritches the animal gently on the head.
It’s not a stretch to see a reference to/mirroring of Nixon’s famous Checkers speech, but this is not a moment of misdirection or politicking; it’s a moment of human vulnerability, where the only safe love is unconditional dog-love. Which is not to say that Frost/Nixon is, as some have claimed, an apologia for the Nixon administration and its unequivocal crimes. It’s something more complex—and more equivocal.
Peter Morgan, who wrote the stage play Frost/Nixon, as well as also scripting and co-producing the screen adaptation, seems to have an uncanny knack for getting inside the private psychology of public figures in moments of crisis. (Not that he bats a thousand: he’s also responsible for The Last King of Scotland, about which I’m pretty ambivalent, and The Other Boleyn Girl, a movie for which the term credits should be replaced with, “blames”.) As an evocation of life under the sunlamp of hot media, Nixon’s encounter with the dachshund is a mirror of Elizabeth II’s encounter with the stag near the end of The Queen (although an equally strong case for mirroring could be made for the scenes of Nixon staring out over the ocean in the film’s coda). These are ambiguous moments that force the audience to project and draw their own conclusions, and in so doing, confront the fact that we may not know as much as we assume—that sound bites, scrums or indeed a person’s professional conduct may not tell the whole story.
Hollywood in general (and Ron Howard in particular) isn’t very good with ambiguity (exhibit A: the frankly insulting The DaVinci Code, where the only thing ambiguous is the motivation behind Tom Hanks’ hair cut). But the Nixon story is all about ambiguity and plausible deniability the dark matter of what could have been contained in the missing 18 minutes of White House tape. Interestingly, one of Frost/Nixon’s most debate-worthy sequences involves a telephone call from Nixon to Frost that Nixon later can’t recall, and which effectively gives him his own missing 18 minutes. Is unrecorded experience real? Discuss.
Frost/Nixon is a story with an unstable footing, a story of changing media changing the world, a story of the power of the television camera as much as the power of men of power (all that on top of being, in itself, an echo-chamber adaptation of an adaptation of media event). As Sam Rockwell (redeeming himself slightly for the execrable Choke in the role of James Reston, Jr.) summarizes:
You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, trenches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot. At first I couldn’t understand why Bob Zelnick was quite as euphoric as he was after the interviews, or why John Birt felt moved to strip naked and rush into the ocean to celebrate. But that was before I really understood the reductive power of the close-up, because David had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get; Richard Nixon’s face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist.
Reston’s words resonate today (think of the Bush White House’s stridently reductive soundbiting of the good/evil dichotomy). But Frost/Nixon is not about good or evil. It’s not about private or public. It’s not even about Frost or Nixon.
It’s about that slash.
I’m willing to argue that Frost/Nixon may be the world’s first Oscar-nominated slash fiction (tell you what; instead of delving into an almost-certainly NSFW explanation, I’ll let you Google that if necessary). The slash is where things brush up against one another. It’s not a reconciliation of opposites, or an equalization of quantities. It’s not umbilical or connective. At best, it’s an imperfect equation, a division with a remainder.
And perhaps what remains is Nixon the man. Not that that’s a simple thing – as a man, he’s still a combination of opinion and fact, nature and nurture, paucity of foresight and surfeit of hindsight. And at the centre of it all is something untouched (and maybe untouchable). As Henry Kissinger put it when describing Nixon, “The essence of this man is loneliness.”
To return to my initial question, what went right here may be the fact that Frost/Nixon doesn’t choose between right and wrong for you. It asks you to think about complex ideas. And that’s anything but boring.