I don’t think Ron Howard’s dramatization of the events that took place around the landmark televised interviews that aired in is 100% accurate, nor do I care if it is. I think it’s impeccably staged, though, and I think it’s the best overall piece of filmcraft that Howard’s ever put together. I’am fascinated not only by Richard Nixon, but in the various attempts people have made to bring him to the screen. I think there have been some great interpretations so far, like Altman’s “Secret Honor” or Stone’s “Nixon,” but for my money, Frank Langella just claimed the title as “best film version of Nixon ever.” He captures the arrogance, the intelligence, and the profound, nearly-crushing sadness of the man, and he doesn’t resort to an impression to do it. Instead, he adopts the right mannerisms to suggest Nixon rather than trying to recreate him exactly. It’s impressive work, even if the rest of the film didn’t connect.
But it does. In fact, the rest of the film is probably the single best thing Ron Howard’s ever directed. Peter Morgan’s a hell of a smart writer, and in adapting his own play to the bigscreen, he’s done tremendous work at making it cinematic. It helps that Howard hired a great cast, including Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, and Sam Rockwell, to fill out some of the supporting roles. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to Michael Sheen’s Frost sitting face-to-face with Langella’s Nixon, and if those two don’t engage… if there are no fireworks between them… then the film fails. And thankfully, there are fireworks to spare. They’ve got sensational chemistry, and I’m starting to really warm up to Sheen as an actor. I think he’s so subtle that I didn’t get it at first, but the more I watch, the more I see a really grounded, intelligent performer who makes fascinating choices in each role.
I do think the film speaks to our own problems with the Presidency right now, but I don’t believe that the only relevance it has is contemporary. It’s important to really understand someone like Nixon because he is, in many ways, the personification of American politics. He did great things, but he was so personally motivated and so wrapped up in the game of it that he didn’t seem to care if what he did was right or wrong. And considering how much damage he did to the office of the President, something he so obviously revered and coveted, maybe he should have considered the long game a little more. It’s a shame that this is Nixon’s legacy, the thing he feared the most, but at least as we re-examine it, we get something this good as a result.