Field conditions: A 4:45 p.m. show one cold Saturday afternoon at Cleveland's Cedar Lee, about half an hour after I had watched "Milk" on another Cedar Lee screen. Good-sized screen, good seats, chilly but not as much as the "Mlik" theater. Some time before the film, I revisited the original Frost/Nixon Watergate interview, now available on DVD, and looked at it again after the movie.
Aside from Frank Langella's performance, a disappointment.
Let me start by saying that I'm a Langella fan. Have been a long time -- "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Dracula," saw his Sherlock Holmes at Williamstown, "Dave," "Good Night and Good Luck." He has a quality that can take over a movie scene, a charm that can nonetheless seem dangerous, a forcefulness that is terrifying even when it's a bit funny. (When he talks about having people killed in "Dave," there is no doubt that he means it.) And his Nixon is a marvel -- intimidating, smart, clumsy (especially when he tries to be charming), devoid of irony (most noticeable in a line about taping.)
But "Frost/Nixon" overall is a bit dull, a march toward a final confrontation and "confession" which is far more in the movie than it was in real life. Like any artistic adaptation, it modifies the truth. (Indeed, what may be Langella's best scene, a late-night drunken phone call to Frost, never happened.) Still, the modifications here -- the trimming of real dialogue, especially -- seem overdone, feeding a need for a crowd-satisfying climax when real life was rather less. (For more on this, see an interview with Frost here and journalist Elizabeth Drew's column here.)
Not only is there the confession, there's the whole idea of Frost as some low-rent talk-show host who is not used to interviewing the powerful. Coincidentally, I am reading "The Man Who Owns the News," Michael Wolff's biography of Rupert Murdoch, and there's Frost interviewing Murdoch in 1969 -- long before the Nixon interviews -- and scourging the mogul-on-the-rise. As Wolff describes the interview: "It's notable for the ferocity of Frost's attack -- sarcastic, prosecutorial, and sanctimonious."
I realize here that I am blending a judgment based on history with a judgment based on art, but the events in "Frost/Nixon" are part of my history. I watched the Watergate interview and part of the others when it originally aired. Nixon became vice president when I was a little over a year old, and resigned from the presidency when I was in my twenties. In between, in 1968, I saw him on a campaign stop. Not long ago I read the book "Nixonland." I have paperbacks of his memoirs and of "Six Crises." (Let me also be clear, I'm not a fan.) I can even pinpoint his death in my personal history: I had finished my first book and had taken my sons on vacation to Disney World; after we had gotten to our rooms and I turned on the TV, there were the newscasters talking Nixon.
When I went to "Frost/Nixon," the crowd seemed to consist mainly of people old enough to remember Nixon as a living, frightening, political character, too. But part of that memory should be what an immensely frustrating creature he was. He gave Frost some expressions of regret -- Nixon, in for a cut of the profits from the programs, knew he had to give up something -- but it was far less than what "Frost/Nixon" indicates.
And there I am, talking history again. Back to the movie: It tries to be dramatic, and it does have that splendid Langella performance to lean on. Michael Sheen is a serviceable, if overly wimpy, Frost. There are nice little flourishes but it doesn't add up to enough. It certainly wasn't in the league of "Milk," which I saw beforehand. As I have said before, I would have given a couple of other films the best-picture nomination before "Frost/Nixon."