"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore ..."
-- Richard Nixon, on his 1962 loss to Pat Brown for the Governorship of California
That statement turned out, of course, not to be true; we would have Nixon to kick around for decades more. That statement also concealed a different truth, which is that Nixon -- the hunched, scowling, puritan-satyr of American politics -- could not only take a beating, but also dish one out. Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard's film adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play, kicks Nixon around, but it also lets him kick back, as TV personality (not journalist or reporter, but personality) David Frost faces Nixon in a series of 1977 interviews for an ambitious, expensive and poorly-planned multi-night TV broadcast. Why would Nixon agree to an on-camera inquisition? Because Frost paid him -- $600,000 -- for the chance to do so, and because Nixon thought it might be a chance to re-emerge from his exile after resigning the presidency in 1974. Two men, their careers in decline, circling each other for a shot at redemption: Frost (Michael Sheen) is wagering his fortune on the chance to re-make his reputation; Nixon (Frank Langella), with neither reputation or fortune, is desperate for a chance to escape infamy.
But Frost/Nixon is not simply the equivalent of Thunderdome for readers of The Nation, where two men enter and one man leaves. Morgan's script is smart enough to make sure there are things hidden under that clash, a quieter film about character and communication, modern media and ancient principles. And we also get the interview field of combat, which drapes the slick surface of modern manners over the kind of brute, bloody battle you normally see only in nature documentaries. The film, like Frost's interviews, is not merely about Watergate -- which is good, because we have, I should think, drained that well of venality fairly dry -- but instead about bigger issues of accountability and process and principle. Frost, stripped of all pretense, was asking Nixon a good question: Who the hell do you think you are? Nixon, stripped of all pretense, was asking an equally good question: Who the hell are you to ask?