Ron Howard’s films are usually simplistic and condescending, but they generally deal with trivial subject matter (A Beautiful Mind, Edtv, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Frost/Nixon, on the other hand, is his attempt to be for the first time, serious, and whereas it is by far the most entertaining of his films to date, it is also the most unnerving. Based on play by Peter Morgan (The Queen), the film has the slightly preposterous premise that Richard Nixon, after his resignation from the presidency of the United States following Watergate, was a deeply troubled man who needed an outlet, precisely to communicate an apology to the American public, and that by doing so on the Frost interviews, he got rid of his demons.
As Elizabeth Drew made perfectly clear in her column at the Huffington Post (“A Dishonorable Distortion of History“), Morgan’s and Howard’s version of the facts is ludicrous, a filmic construct bearing no more relation to reality than Howard’s previous movie (The Da Vinci Code). While it’s not necessary that a historical movie dealing with historical figures has to be factual (take Oliver Stone’s fascinating JFK and Nixon, for instance), Frost/Nixon is dangerous because it romanticizes Nixon too much. Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is delightful, making him a towering figure who’s at the same time brilliant, fallible, funny and heroic: not at all what one would expect from Richard Nixon. By the same token, the conscientious David Frost is bashed to the point of ridicule, played as a brainless womanizer who hopes the Nixon interviews will bring him a lot of dough.
For a 2008 audience, Langella’s Nixon evokes the illusion that America’s 37th president was a far more interesting and competent man than its current president, George W. Bush. It probably was, but you come out of the movie thinking not of Nixon’s atrocities and mistakes – alluded to only indirectly – but fascinated by Langella, and we confuse the performance for the man himself. I’ve read more than one review, by people who lived in the Nixon administration, dazzled by how this man was just a misunderstood genius. He wasn’t, and the Frost/Nixon interviews did nothing to redeem him (personally, who knows?) in the American public’s eye: it was a ploy engineered by Nixon and his assessors, and he was the one who profited the most from it, facts that the film omits.