If the assassination of JFK was a defining, traumatic blow to American hopefulness, the Watergate scandal a decade later arguably created something worse: a deep collective cynicism that our politics could never escape corruption, or that the guilty would be truly punished even when caught red-handed. How much worse have we shrugged off since?
As the most secretive White House in modern memory pulls up stakes, there's a fear that particular history may repeat itself. What if Bush blanket-pardons his cabinet, as Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon, of any and all crimes not yet formally accused? In 1974, that move informed our great nation that at certain high levels, the concept of justice need not apply. In fact, it meant Dick. Nixon left the country in far better (shaky, but better) shape than W., but arguably suffered a greater popular backlash than Bush will. He never admitted any criminal wrongdoing, copping to vague "mistakes made" instead. He resigned to avoid impeachment, and the full airing of dirty laundry that would have required. Thus, the sweatiest president ever avoided total humiliation. But didn't he owe us repentance?
The pardon and Nixon's subsequent shrinking from public life left a majority feeling cheated. He owed us that pound of flesh withholding it was intolerable arrogance. Adapted by Peter Morgan from his widely produced play, with the originating lead actors reprising their roles, Frost/Nixon dramatizes the moment when Tricky Dick did get called onto the public carpet to confess his sins. Which he did well, sorta kinda. The disgraced prez (Frank Langella) is offered tempting scads of money to be interviewed on TV by an odd candidate for interrogator, the rather garish Brit chat show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) a showbiz personality more akin to contemporaries the Galloping Gourmet and early Geraldo Rivera than, say, Walter Cronkite (or even Dick Cavett).
Nixon's people (including Kevin Bacon as security chief) figure this presumably softball platform will provide opportunity to burnish his tarnished legacy as statesman. The team that womanizing, cheerfully shallow Frost assembles to prep for this American broadcast "comeback" worry that he lacks the depth of knowledge, experience, or backbone to pin subject to mat. All suspense here hinges on whether Frost can give his armchair opponent "the trial he never had." He's seemingly outmatched: fallen yet not feebled, the ex-president proves a master of spin, evasion, and subterfuge.
George Clooney was reportedly eager to direct Frost/Nixon; he might've made something slyer and subtler than Ron Howard, who sometimes underlines performance nuances as if wielding a bullhorn and flashing neon sign. But it's still the best movie he's done, a nimble opening-up of a talky stage entity that only slightly exaggerates the import of real-life events. Langella makes one realize how seldom the most widely caricatured president in history has been portrayed as more than a collection of grotesque tics; Sheen is as expert here as he was playing Tony Blair in 2006's The Queen. While its contemporary echoes aren't overt, Frost/Nixon prods an important question: why do we demand even less accountability of our Commander-in-Chief now? What should have been lessons learned from Nixon instead begat heightened apathy, gullibility, and stupidity. As an electorate, we got the Commanders-in-Chief we deserved.
FROST/NIXON opens Fri/12 in San Francisco.