Hollywood’s supercharged update might be closing in on some Oscars, so why not go back to the videotape? Well, a couple reasons. First, this original 1977 segment is not the shaped drama that Peter Morgan’s play and screenplay make it out to be. Richard Nixon, per his customary manner, is something of a gasbag, filling his responses with chthonic masses of indigestible rhetoric and legal statute. He’s a fascinating subject, to be sure: dissembling and crafty. But the great Frank Langella could never be this weasely. Secondly, interviewer David Frost, while tenacious, is extremely dry on the facts, particularly the “gangster film” language Nixon uses to describe the cover-up in his White House tapes. He’s no Perry Mason, even if Michael Sheen makes him out that way.
The importance of the interview, as correctly pointed out in the play, is Nixon’s unlikely confession at the end: the swollen apology in close-up. Students of political history, not just Nixonphiles, should see it. (Everyone else? Stick with Ron Howard.) To compare this moment to Sarah Palin on Katie Couric is glib; she was a dead duck (moose?) going in, whereas Nixon was—and is—a figure of massive importance, slipping the chains of guilt and leaving the nation in a permanent seethe. In newly recorded bookends, Frost recalls Nixon vividly: “a sad man who so wanted to be great.” That his TV interview scraped at such a core conflict of Nixon’s psyche remains commendable.