Using movies as a window on reality is always tricky business, particularly when the subject is an American president. Oliver Stone’s forays into the genre –from JFK to his recent W – are well known, and discerning viewers are wise to keep their antennae up for the spin coming from Mr. Stone and others. Nonetheless, there can be much to learn from a cinematic perspective on a president’s life and times when one approaches with the right level of wariness.
The current film Frost Nixon, from director Ron Howard, is based on a 2006 play by Peter Morgan and features an uncanny performance by Frank Langella as Nixon, with Michael Sheen as David Frost, the British talk show host who conducted lengthy interviews with the disgraced Nixon for broadcast on television in 1977. At first, Nixon is eager to defend himself, but the film builds gradually to two memorable moments, in which his desire to make some sort of confession becomes palpable.
As depicted in the film, in their fourth and final interview, Frost nails Nixon with a previously little-known but highly incriminating piece of evidence regarding Nixon’s participation in a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. The two men tangle briefly over the legal definition of “obstruction of justice” before Frost, sensing that Nixon is on verge of some sort of confession, throws his notepad to the floor and asks Nixon pointblank whether he is prepared to admit his actions were wrong and apologize to the American people.
Initially, Nixon will only go so far as to admit “mistakes,” but other words to describe his actions are hovering close at hand. I found myself wondering: If he’s willing to admit to mistakes or errors, and has a look of such agony on his face, is Nixon prepared to say the word “crime” or – even more fundamentally – “sin”? Though those precise words do not exactly pass his lips, Nixon concedes, with downcast eyes and an ashen expression, that he let the American people down. Frost’s crew quickly revels in the “gotcha” moment while a bewildered Nixon leaves the interview site in a daze, still trying to come to terms with his sense of shame and isolation.
What was it about Nixon’s character that led to the fateful choices he made? In what may have been a moment of dramatic license, Ron Howard’s film offers much to speculate about in a scene that occurs shortly before the final interview session. An anxious Nixon calls Frost late at night and launches into a remarkable, rambling pro vita sua. On the one hand, Nixon claims that he and Frost are kindred souls, because each rose to the top of his profession despite humble origins but was denied acceptance by the old elites due to sheer snobbery. Yet having claimed this kinship with Frost, in the next breath Nixon is vowing to vanquish him in the last interview, because in American life there can be only one winner.
In the culture of fame we live in today, such a statement scarcely makes sense. By the standards of fame, Frost and Nixon were complicit with each other in attracting the widest possible audience for their common venture. With a sense of irony, one might even call them co-conspirators seeking to co-opt the Nielsen rating game.
Yet Nixon came from another America, one where, as Vince Lombardi famously asserted, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” His simplistic conceptions of winning and losing were reflected in his hardball political tactics and his refusal to end the Vietnam War. For all his knowledge of geopolitics, he didn’t see that Frederick the Great was wrong: God is not on the side of the big battalions. Indeed, in a world turned upside down by Christianity, God is especially close to the victims, even if that doesn’t fit with Kissinger’s Realpolitik. It would have been a breakthrough far bigger than the openings to Russia and China if Nixon could have reclaimed enough of his Quaker roots to recognize this.