Richard Nixon is telling David Frost about the day in March 1973 when he realized he had to fire his chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichman, for abetting the Watergate cover-up or, rather, for being fingered by the press for doing it. Tears glimmer in the ex-President's eyes, then he closes them to contain the pain as he staggers through his reciting of the conversation. "I said, 'You know, John, when I went to bed last night,' I said, 'I hoped,' I said, 'I hoped, I almost prayed I wouldn't wake up this morning.'" He grimaces at the memory of his suicidal depression, and winces at what followed: his tardy dismissal of his two closest aides, Ehrlichman and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. "They agreed to leave. And so, it was late, but I did it. I cut off one arm, then cut off the other." He shakes his head at each "slash" and his mouth falls into the famed Nixon frown.
Frank Langella would be proud of such a performance. But this display of mood-altering confession and self-justification was the real Nixon, in his TV marathon with Frost in 1977, three years after he left the White House in disgrace. That four-part joust, still the highest-rated interview show in U.S. history, was the inspiration for Peter Morgan's London and Broadway play starring Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Langella and Sheen (and Morgan) repeat their roles in the Ron Howard movie version opening today. Both the movie and the interviews (now available on DVD as Frost Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews) are essential evocations of a unique moment in American history when the only President ever to resign his office sat down for his own TV inquisition. (See pictures of TIME's Watergate covers.)
The stage original was plenty entertaining, a portrait of two brilliant, conflicted men with something to prove: Nixon that he was a statesman, not a crook; Frost that he had the gravitas to bring a big man down. So how does that become a movie one, moreover, that is essentially a making-of feature about a '70s TV show? Howard knew that to convey the particulars of what must seem like ancient history to younger viewers, he needed to move from the long-shot perspective of a play to the interviews' own visual style: alternating medium shots of Frost with blistering close-ups of Nixon. Thus, what was a pageant on the stage becomes an intimate, magnified TV show, the camera alert to every nuance of Frost's insecurity rising to bravado, Nixon's pugnacity gradually sagging into defeat. This very fine movie doesn't make history, but it captures history as few others have. (See the Top 10 unfortunate political one-liners.)
Morgan's script has events push Frost against the ropes, the better to show how he rallied to win the fight. In a career slump after losing his Australian TV gig, he secures a contract for the Nixon interviews but must pay $200,000 out of his own pocket. The three big U.S. networks refuse to buy into his scheme, and he borrows money from friends. (He eventually creates a de facto network of independent stations to air the interviews.) Of the two reporters he hires to research Nixon, one, Bob Zelnick (large, puddingy Oliver Platt) is cynical of Frost's ability to bring the scheme off, and the other, James Reston, Jr. (bantam battler Sam Rockwell), rails against the host's apparent reluctance to focus on studying up.
Whereas Frost's seconds are guns for hire, Nixon's cornerman, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), has as lifetime loyalty to his boss. Since the resignation, he has become a fretful coach and father figure to Nixon, encouraging him to be strong, insisting an interview be stopped at the first sign of Nixon's vulnerability. All these plot elements have some basis in fact. Morgan's one fanciful addition is a phone call Nixon makes to Frost, spilling out his guts, fears and resentments. In this scene above all others, Langella leeches into the president's anxieties, and summons much of the angry power of the private man or at least our image of the private man. But this is an impressive performance throughout. Langella is not a natural Nixon; he has a voluptuary's face and a self-assurance the president only dreamed of. So he burrows into Nixon and comes out with a figure who is less a simulacrum than the definitive interpretation.
Still, there's nothing like the real thing, in festering splendor, on the Frost/Nixon DVD. Here is Tricky Dick, smiling, wheedling, lawyering like crazy to get himself exonerated on a technicality, until he realizes that this isn't a courtroom, it's a TV show. Like any politician, Nixon was an actor a bad actor, to be sure, but a great bad actor, in that he let the camera's surgical close-ups reveal more than he wanted to display, and sometimes the exact opposite of what he was trying to say. The performance is infuriating and hilarious, or unbearably poignant, depending on your politics. Either way, it's stirring, depleting drama.
Richard Nixon, no less than David Frost, was a TV personality. Every U.S. president from John Kennedy on has had to be one: the nation's talk-show host, defining its agenda and character. (Franklin D. Roosevelt created the same niche on radio with his Fireside Chats.) TV stardom is a matter of connecting with the masses by peddling an agreeable personality. That's a challenge for which the brainy, devious Nixon was ill-suited.