Frost/ Nixon opens Thursday throughout the Triangle

The 1977 televised interviews of the disgraced President Richard M. Nixon, conducted by the British television personality David Frost, is one of those cultural moments that most of us under the age of, say, 38, regard with bafflementif we’ve even ever heard of it.

Thanks to Frost/ Nixon, Ron Howard’s entertaining adaptation of Peter Morgan’s hugely successful, if historically questionable, two-person play, this touchstone television moment will be added to the cultural memory bank of a new generation. The movie is entertaining enough, but it’s also interesting to consider the film’s depiction of Nixon versus that of Oliver Stone, and that of the uncharismatic yet ubiquitous political specter that an older generation had to live with between 1952 and 1974.

The story, which Howard and Morgan have seamlessly opened up to a full cast of characters, sets up a noble battle between Frost, the underdog pursuer of truth, and Nixon, the big, bad, glowering, sweating Golem of political malignity. What makes the story work, however, are the deft, light, non-ideological performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who reprise their stage roles. Sheen, who did a similar feat of mimicry as Tony Blair in The Queen, has a wolfish, Jack Nicholson-like demeanor, and he gleefully, charmingly plumbs the shallows of Frost’s character. (Although there’s little resemblance, I’d love to see Sheen tackle George W. Bush.) Langella, for his part, looks nothing like Nixon and plays him as a clumsily scheming but hardly unlikable old coot. It’s a far cry from the impacted turd of a human being that Anthony Hopkins played in Stone’s 1994 film. Hopkins’ version is surely closer to the mark, but the agenda of Frost/ Nixon is not nearly so urgent. When Stone’s film came out, Nixon had only just died, and there was the business of preventing his rehabilitation. But today, America is a place that has elected its first post-boomer and post-Vietnam president, and movie audiences are probably more apt to swallow its Nixon lesson with a little humor and flair.

For some, the dramatic license taken by Morgan is unacceptable, however. The journalist and historian Elizabeth Drew recently charged that the film distorts history by depicting a confession Nixon never made, and by downplaying the extent to which Nixon was complicit with Frost in serving up details juicy enough to bring in big ratings and sponsorship dollars.

While I’m not qualified to adjudicate this dispute, it’s worth noting that Morgan’s story relies heavily on a behind-the-scenes account by James Reston Jr., who at the time was a well-connected Vietnam veteran and a creative writing teacher at UNC-Chapel Hill (which he attended in the early 1960s as a Morehead scholar). Reston was also a well-known advocate on veteran’s issues and was asked to join Frost’s research team to prepare for the interview. Reston, played in the film by Sam Rockwell, is an important figure who constantly goads Frost to go for Nixon’s jugular.

Honestly, however, I found Reston’s rumpled, self-righteous manner to be rather grating, but his irritating presence functions as the story’s conscience; he reminds Frostand, more crucially, usthat Nixon was a really, really bad guy. One can imagine that 30 years from now, a hit play could emerge with the title of, say, Bush/ Cheney, and in it, we might see the more appealing parts of Bush’s personality: his irreverent sense of humor and his personal decency (which he does possess, by the way). But, those of us who lived through the Bush years would demand a character like Reston, one who would remind younger generations of the fear and loathing Bush inspired, even as those younger audiences who were fortunate enough to have missed the Bush/ Cheney years might require the lighter touch displayed by Frost/ Nixon.