Just before the mainstream conglomerate media let loose their dynastic praise on Frost/Nixon, a big studio picture directed by one of that machine’s favorite sons Opie, I had the special privilege of previewing this stage adaptation just on the heels of seeing its Kennedy Center run, with all the curiosities that attend contrasting live theatre under a proscenium, against the meticulously edited medium of cinema where Nixon’s famous beads of sweat are literally inches large – an intimacy that ironically amounts to smaller realism. (It is another evening at the movies followed by almost twenty minutes on the board for the next Orange Line train, so here comes another session of twiddling.)
When leaving the live production, I remember feeling (in agreement with my father who attended with me) that the playwright’s conception was better suited for the movie medium. Some reasons are obvious, foremost the fact that the actual deus ex machina here is not something archetypal like gods and monsters you would nest above the stage, but rather the artifice of moving-picture interviews. You also have the simple fact that the playwright has found his most success as a screenwriter (e.g., U.K.’s “The Queen”). Moreover, the way that his actors address the audience from the stage is a combination of patronizing backstory and inelegant theatricalism (i.e., a device that comfits formalism and not this cocky contemporary milieu).
On the other hand, this is not a masterful motion picture. Ron Howard has never been more than a competent, conventional filmmaker, and this prêt-à-porter project is no exception. Straight out of first-year film school (a class that Mr. Howard probably just audited), you can easily anticipate the tactic of verité camerawork coming on with all the grace and freshness of Grandpa’s favorite joke. And the film’s convenience of relating backstory through journalistic interviews does not improve upon the play’s primary fault of inelegant theatricalism.
But there is an extraordinary payoff in the film’s final shot, a true literary dénouement, and by describing it here I give nothing away, only cue the moment for you specially to relish. In the play and screenplay, one current in the brinksmanship between Frost and Nixon is the President’s grumbling about how Frost’s Italian loafers are effeminate – “real men wear laces,” says Nixon’s right-hand military man. At the end of the film, Frost delivers Nixon a present, those same loafers. The parting shot – a beauty so proprietary to the language of cinema – is of Nixon against a fiery sunset, left alone again in his terrible loneliness, peering out into the ocean with that brand new pair of loafers planted onto the rail of his veranda. Prominent in the lore of Richard Nixon is an anecdote contained not by words, but a photograph – we see the Quaker walking in the sand of his San Clemente shore with his shoes on. From time to time, moments like these solidify my grown understanding of how Art can be infinitely more efficient, tasteful and even intellectual than the most carefully polished treatises. Even when these glimpses into enlightenment come sparingly, they make it all worthwhile. You can spend two hours in stadium seating surrounded by popcorn chomps, but something that lasts less than a minute occupies your mind and your spirit for so many more hours.