Nervous About Nixon?
As masterful as Frank Langella's performance is in Frost/Nixon, powerfully capturing the former president's shabby grandeur, his Richard Nixon is a shadow of the real thing. Or more accurately perhaps, it is the shadow of a shadow. For as historian David Greenberg explains in his new book Nixon's Shadow, when it came to Nixon, there was always a gap between reality and image. The former president's entire career and post-resignation search for redemption was a 40-year struggle to craft and control his image.
Nixon's ongoing efforts to shape his persona evolved in step with the rise of television. And for Nixon, the cathode-ray tube gave and it took away; his political reputation was salvaged by the 1952 "Checkers" speech—a half-hour TV ad—and it was nearly ruined in 1960 by his ashen pallor and listless performance in his first televised debate with John F. Kennedy. Both of these TV landmarks were pseudo-events, the sort of contrived yet compelling media spectacle that Daniel Boorstin diagnosed in his 1962 book The Image.
Nixon was not complaining so much as stating the obvious when he remarked in early 1968 to his future media guru Roger Ailes, "Isn't it a shame that a candidate should have to resort to a gimmick like TV to get elected?" Nixon understood that by controlling one's identity through the gimmick of TV, the candidate could cover up the real thing. Greenberg quotes Adlai Stevenson, who said of Nixon, "This is a man of many masks, but who can say they have seen his real face?" Could we trust the Nixon we were seeing on the tube? As the famous 1960 anti-Nixon campaign cartoon pointedly asked, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Or, as this 1956 Stevenson commercial asks more pointedly, Are you nervous about Nixon?:
If you believe that the warmth of sympathy can melt the frosty ice of concealment, and you seek an emotionally cathartic portrait of Nixon as a deluded but tragic and ultimately likable hero, Langella's performance and Ron Howard's richly textured and captivating adaptation of the Peter Morgan play are perfectly satisfying. But if you're looking for a viewing experience that preserves the real enigma, the confounding blend of pettiness, delusion, and intelligence that defined Nixon, you will find it on the newly released DVD Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews, an ideal companion to the Hollywood version.
Here, in unblinking Warholian close-up for a full 90 minutes, without lush scenery or the dramatic padding of scenes of backstage intrigue, is the well-tanned former president using every weapon in his arsenal, including humor, charm, flattery, rationalization, and obfuscation, to defend his reputation during his 1977 sitdown with Frost. In this curious blend of confessional and closing argument, Nixon is his own defense attorney, and he is as gifted as Clarence Darrow, which is all the more impressive because it is quite clear as the interview grinds on that he has absolutely no case. Watching this in 2008, after eight years of George W. Bush, a president who can barely put a sentence together, there is nostalgic pleasure to be had in following Nixon's agile use of language and the elaborate architecture of his thought process. Still, his guilt is clear; as he presses the unconvincing argument that he didn't obstruct justice, he is essentially throwing himself on the mercy of the public court. And the price he must pay to win this mercy is perfectly clear. He must consummate the deal with a cathartic moment and let his guard down long enough for the camera lens to slowly zoom in and scoop up a glistening teardrop.
The interview becomes, among other things, a struggle not just between Frost and Nixon, or between the bare truth and the rationalizations. Instead, Nixon interestingly frames the conflict as a battle between the heart and the head. "Emotion" works on several levels here. First, Nixon uses emotion, in the form of well-chosen personal anecdotes, to try to win over the viewer and make his sale. Second, Nixon explains away his Constitution-bashing crimes as careless by-products of emotional involvement, i.e., he was helping his friends in need. Third, emotion is posited by Nixon as that messy thing that can get in the way of our carefully contrived plans. In a fascinatingly meta moment late in the interview, Nixon candidly acknowledges his disingenuousness when he responds to a Frost question by remarking, "Well, that forces me to rationalize now and give you a carefully prepared and cropped statement." He launches into another self-serving anecdote with this setup: "I can tell you this, I think I said it all in one of those moments that you're not thinking, when sometimes you say the things that are really in your heart. When you're thinking in advance, then you say things that are tailored to the audience."
Nixon's camera-consciousness is deeply ingrained. Just look at this remarkable video "outtake" of Nixon, intuitively concerned with camera angles, lighting, and audio, in the two minutes before going on the air in front of the world to resign:
The resignation was the profound anticlimax of his political career. No politician gained—or lost—more from television than Richard Nixon. Here he is in 1952, the first year that candidates sold themselves on television, in his "Checkers" speech, already combining aggressiveness and blatant sentimentality as he fights back against corruption charges. As he would do with David Frost a quarter-century later, he paints himself as a victim and turns the attack on his attackers. He wins over the audience by proudly referring to his wife's humble cloth coat and to his daughters' beloved cocker spaniel.
This performance was crucial to the maintenance of Nixon's image, because he was running with Eisenhower on an anti-corruption, anti-Communist ticket that would clean up Washington from the scandals that had plagued the Truman administration. In this prophetic 1952 ad, he makes "one point very clear": that corruption "ranges all the way from petty political larceny to grand government theft."
Thus began a quarter-century-long televised soap opera for Nixon, a rollercoaster ride marked by victories (the image-enhancing Khrushchev kitchen debate in 1958, the brilliant Ailes-controlled TV campaign of 1968 described in Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President) and defeats (the disastrous TV debate against Kennedy, and the entire Watergate saga that not only sank his presidency but ushered in an era of public cynicism towards government defined by the ubiquity of the suffix "-gate"). Nixon was a polarizing force; either you bought into his paranoia about Communists, the media, and the liberal elite, or you were paranoid about him.
And though he craved our approval, or at least our vote, likability never came easily to him. He was trained as a lawyer, and a part of Nixon always believed he could convince people to side with him through the sheer force of argument. Hence the "salesman" label that stuck with him until it was replaced by the less flattering "Tricky Dick." Here he is in a 1960 ad, shifty eyes and all, making the case that support for civil rights was grounded in the larger war on Communism. Stiff and formal, he couldn't compete with John Kennedy's breezy charm:
Learning his lesson, Nixon carefully modulated his TV appearances in the next two elections. First of all, he avoided debates. And in his 1968 ads, he stayed off camera. Instead his ads presented a terrifying view of a country in chaos; his stern parental voice was just what was needed, at least for the silent majority. The message was clear; you may not like Nixon, but you need him:
As the incumbent president, Nixon was finally in control of the image-making apparatus. He turned the White House into a fortress and created his version of an imperial presidency. In this five-minute ad for his re-election in 1972, filmed in candid-camera cinema vérité style, but with complete control over his image, the Nixon campaign created the most idealized view of their candidate that has ever been put on film. Here is Nixon as he would have liked us to remember him, were it not for the messy reality of those Oval Office audio recordings:
Because television defined Nixon for better and for worse, it was inevitable that he would be seduced by the opportunity to salvage his reputation in a series of interviews with British talk-show host David Frost in 1977. Bonded like heavyweight champs by their mutual need to burnish their reputations (and earn their hefty paychecks), and by their equally compelling need to vanquish the other, the Frost/Nixon interviews may have been pseudo-events, but they made for surefire television drama.
Opening with a wall of images on TV screens, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon plays like a media-savvy dramatization of a championship bout, with the young upstart spending the early rounds on the ropes, dazzled by the champ's prowess, but ultimately finding just the right moment, like Russell Crowe's James Braddock in Howard's Cinderella Man, to land the knockout punch.
But Frost/Nixon belongs less to Ron Howard than to playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has made a veritable genre out of duets involving real-life power figures: the young Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, James McAvoy's Nicholas Garrigan and Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Each depicts a contest between a wide-eyed yet skeptical observer and an emotionally removed yet needy tyrant. The upstart can only win after becoming entangled; one of Morgan's keenest insights is that the very same egocentricity that drives the ambitious becomes the source of the hubris that will destroy them. After all, consuming egos need to be fed.
And Frost and Nixon clearly fed on each other. Still, the real-life Frost is hardly as dewy-eyed or naïve as Michael Sheen portrays him in Frost/Nixon. Sheen's performance, or rather the conception of his character by both Morgan and Howard, does somewhat of a disservice to the real-life Frost. In the actual interviews, Frost is crisp, sharp, and professional, in total command of the details and quite aware that he has the goods on Nixon. And the real Nixon seems to know this as well; understanding that the facts of the case are not on his side, he instead tries to build the case that his main failing was that he succumbed to his heart rather than using his head.
But by the simple fact of trying to explain his actions, trying to rebut every charge with a self-serving story, Nixon found himself trapped on a playing field that doesn't serve him.
Although he remains on top of his game for most of the time, the weight of the situation wears him down, and the telltale signs of defeat eventually set in. The head jerks back, the eyes dart offscreen, a sigh is barely contained. These powerful moments carry more weight than anything Langella can conjure, simply because they are spontaneous and unrehearsed. By definition, Langella's performance is a performance, every gesture ordained by the script, the direction, or the actor's volition. So in the end, it is Langella who is trapped behind the actor's mask, and the eternally inauthentic Nixon who emerges as the real deal.
KEYWORDSAmerican President | David Frost | DVD | Frank Langella | Ron Howard | television | adaptation | Watergate | Cold War
FURTHER RESEARCHThe Living Room Candidate
David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.More articles by David Schwartz