Now: Frost/Nixon (2008)
Then: Nixon (1995)
Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon offers a suspenseful look at the maneuvering that went into celebrity interviewer David Frost’s momentous 1977 conversation with disgraced former President Richard Nixon — in which Nixon finally admitted he had let the American people down. Oliver Stone’s 1995 epic Nixon, on the other hand, shows us how the 37th President of the United States actually let the American people down, dramatically recreating key moments from his life, from his hardscrabble upbringing to his failed 1960 campaign to his resignation in the wake of Watergate. Two very different movies about one very complicated and fascinating man — but which one gets our endorsement?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States…
Frost/Nixon: As Nixon, the imposing Frank Langella is a broken man who retains his undeniable mastery of the room. This Nixon is also — dare we say it? — almost cuddly.
Nixon: Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon is all frantic energy and foul-mouthed bluster. He does have his reflective moments, but this is mostly Nixon the ambitious, paranoid politician, not the melancholy elder statesman.
The Winner: Frost/Nixon. It’s close — Nixon tells a more dramatic tale, but it’s hard to take your eyes off Langella.
The Yes Men
Frost/Nixon: Nixon’s loyal aide Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) tries to protect him at all costs. The film’s most touching scene comes when he takes his president aside right before the famous on-air confession, to let him reflect on the historical nature of what he’s about to do.
Nixon: The gang’s all here, from ruthless Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (James Woods) to the calculating Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino).
The Winner: Nixon. Listen closely and you can hear director Stone cackling with vengeful glee behind the camera.
Frost/Nixon: Frost goes out of his way to show Nixon footage
from the illegal bombing of Cambodia — thus suggesting that
Nixon’s eventual apology was about more than just Watergate.
Nixon: This Nixon has a hand in practically everything, from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam to (it’s hinted) the Kennedy murders.
The Winner: Nixon.
It’s less a history lesson than an attempt at a national exorcism of
the postwar era — which may explain why it’s so often shot like a
Frost/Nixon: Both Nixon and Frost understand the power of
television, and their riveting back and forth is as much an attempt to
control the TV image as it is a debate over policy and history.
Nixon: As aides fret over Nixon’s sweating and glowering his way
through the 1960 debate against Kennedy, Haldeman pipes up: “It’s not a
beauty contest!” He is promptly proven wrong.
The Winner: Frost/Nixon.
Frost/Nixon: The interview itself is on the record. However,
we’re pretty sure the late-night drunken phone call between Frost and
Nixon didn’t happen.
Nixon: An army of voices, among them the Nixon family, objected to the film’s portrayal of the president.
The Winner: Frost/Nixon. Let’s just say there’s a reason why Oliver Stone is a Hollywood movie director and not a historian.
Frost/Nixon: It’s poignant and suspenseful, with two hypnotic
central performances. But is there a disconnect between this avuncular
Nixon and the shadowy figure who still haunts the American presidency?
Nixon: It’s part horror movie, part Shakespearean tragedy,
part comic opera. Amazingly, despite Stone’s own politics, the
film seeks to understand Nixon as a victim of the forces he helped
And the winner is…: Nixon. But it’s close: Ideally, these two movies would make a great (though kinda long) double feature.