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How alike are Richard Nixon and George Bush? This was the question debated at the screening of the movie Frost/Nixon in Washington this week. Director Ron Howard, historian Robert Dallek, and author James Reston, who was a researcher for Frost at the time he taped the debates, all thought the movie was very relevant to the present-day occupant of the Oval Office. Fox News' Chris Wallace objected. During the question-and-answer period, he argued that Bush was not like Nixon because even if you accept the notion that they abused their power in similar ways, Bush did so to defend the country. Nixon was only trying to save his own skin.
This is a fascinating discussion and one worth pondering—but it's beside the point. Or, more accurately, it's beside the point of the film. Frost/Nixon is not really about Nixon's abuses of power. It's about a superstar interviewer and a tortured ex-president. If there's any message in this great movie for President Bush, it's that he should take comfort: Nixon was only slightly more unpopular at the end of his presidency as Bush is now, and yet in the movie he comes across as relatively sympathetic. Perhaps Bush can look forward to a similar upgrade from history. Or at least from Hollywood.
Nixon seems sympathetic because we see him in lonely, human moments. The sympathy comes from the power of the close-up, something one of the film's characters muses on in a different context. James Reston, who is also a character in the film, tries to explain why the Frost interview was so powerful. He attributes much of it to the emotional resonance of the television close-up. When viewers in 1977 watched Nixon's face change as he talked about the absolute power of the presidency, it brought to life the madness that they had, until then, only read about.
In the film, the close-ups of Frank Langella's masterful acting take us inside the roiling hollow that was Nixon and makes him seem tragic, limited, constantly straining against himself. We watch him delude himself as he plots his return to the political spotlight. We see him reduced to retelling unmoving anecdotes to bored conventioneers. He is a sad sack, so droopy and feckless that it's hard to believe he could have done much wrong.
In a pivotal scene, which turns out to be fictional, Nixon calls Frost late at night and launches into a rambling assault on those who have tried to keep him down his whole life. He imagines that Frost suffered the same abuse. His demons are almost visible as he speaks. It's not pretty, but it's more pathetic than anything else. His inferiority complex was so huge it could be sculpted on Mount Rushmore.
In another scene at the end of the movie, Nixon confides to Frost that he envies Frost's ability to interact with other people so easily. Maybe you should have been the politician, and I should have been the hard-nosed interviewer, Nixon suggests. The movie doesn't show us much of Nixon as an especially craven and manipulative liar. We only hear about the bad stuff he did. And James Reston—in the movie, at least—is certainly exercised by Nixon's crimes. But to use a writing cliché, it's too much telling and not enough showing.
The result is that a viewer's level of sympathy for Nixon can be leavened only by a viewer's sense of history. If you have a bright memory of Nixon's smallness of spirit, his cruelty to others, and his disregard for the Constitution, then the movie's portrayal probably won't change your view. But if you have a more forgiving sense of history or think Nixon's acts pale in comparison with Bush's, then the 37th president isn't going to seem so bad. Viewers under 40 may watch this crippled Nixon and, depending on their views of history and psychology, cut him some slack.
As luck or fate would have it, a host of new Nixon tapes were released this week, reminding us about the disgraced ex-president. Perhaps you should listen to them before watching the film. Without a seeing or hearing a dramatic moment of Nixon at the height of his madness, it's possible for viewers of Frost/Nixon to accept Nixon's claim in the interviews that if he made mistakes, they were of the "heart and not the head." And if that's a plausible defense for Nixon, some viewers may think that it could be one for Bush as well. (In fact, that is the argument Wallace was making for Bush.)
But even if you accept that Bush's heart was in the right place, it doesn't amount to a defense of Bush. It's still possible to conclude that he was so blinded or reckless that his acts were criminal. We don't begrudge the policeman who tries to protect us, but when he opens fire while driving at 100 miles per hour through suburban streets, his good intentions don't matter.
At any rate, trying too hard to see present-day relevance in Frost/Nixon obscures an otherwise good film. The acting is spectacular, and the tension makes it feel like a boxing movie. There are only a few clunky moments. (When the director cuts from the piano playing at Frost's birthday party to Nixon playing the piano, you may want to duck.)
As a reporter, I was squirming in my seat watching Nixon play out all the tricks politicians use to get through an interview. He pretended to misunderstand the question. He made up facts. He launched into discursive anecdotes. As Frost slumped in his chair, I was slumping right there with him. At times I wanted to throw him a lifeline.
And that, in the end, is this film's best lesson for the present day. It remains very difficult to get a president, or former president, to talk about wrongdoing. Whatever your view of Bush's motivations or culpability, we can all agree he hasn't talked much.
There are some signs that Bush is opening up a tiny bit. In a recent interview with Charlie Gibson, Bush said he regretted that the intelligence about Iraq had not been better. Though this was not an admission of his own culpability in acting on that intelligence, or ignoring intelligence that contradicted his war aims, it represents progress: There was a time when Bush was unable to discuss mistakes at all. Whether it's the kind of progress Nixon made—progress that eventually led to his admissions in the Frost interviews—is something we'll probably have to wait a few years to find out.
Slate V: The critics' takes on Frost/Nixon, Cadillac Records, and Nobel Son