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Shooting Frost/Nixon 

Frank Langella is the latest actor to tackle enigmatic Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon.

Another big-screen Richard Nixon arrives this week in the form of Frank Langella. He stars in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, entering the widening canon of cinematic incarnations of the 37th American president. contains an extensive list of Nixon as a character in film and television, portrayals ranging from the earnest---Beau Bridges in the 1995 TV movie Kissinger and Nixon---to parody, such as impressionist Rich Little’s famous depiction (and the most curious) in his one-man version of A Christmas Carol, with Little as Nixon as Jacob Marley. It seems that Nixon is now as much a pop culture icon as he is a historical one.

Popular filmmakers like Robert Altman, Oliver Stone and now Ron Howard continue to evolve Nixon as a dramatic character and as a fascination for students of American culture. Nixon’s personality, personal failings and the way Watergate publicly exposed them are appealing to dramatists eager to decipher what was happening in the mind of the only US president to resign from office. Altman’s 1984 Secret Honor and Stone’s 1995 Nixon go deeply into the man behind the presidency and portray, in different ways, a man hindered by his secrets.

Stone says in an interview with Charlie Rose: “What is this movie about? It’s a man who keeps secrets.” Both actors who portrayed Nixon in the films---Phillip Baker Hall in Secret Honor and Anthony Hopkins in Nixon---offer variations on similar themes when discussing their performances. Hopkins says, “He is tormented by the demons inside of him he couldn’t reconcile. He is a tragic figure---tragic for America also.” Hall says in an interview about Secret Honor that, because of his extensive theatre resume, “the territory of older, troubled men, carrying great emotional burdens, faced with problems that were incapable of resolutions---that was not new for me.”

It must be a tantalizing proposition for an actor to portray someone who suffers for the things he chooses not to reveal. Secret Honor, based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, has Nixon alone in an office, tape-recording his defense against Watergate and the failings of his presidency. If you only know Hall as, say, Seinfeld’s Lt. Bookman, the film is a revelation. Hall’s Nixon careens around the set, varying in tone from composed to unhinged. “I wanted to get this feeling that there wasn’t much time left,” Hall says in an interview about his approach. “That he had to get this down quickly or he would never do it. He was racing time. He was racing life.”

As per usual for an Oliver Stone film, Nixon was a lightning rod for controversy, first for its revisionist history and, second, for its oddball casting of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. Hopkins brings something of a Quasimodo quality to his look as Nixon---hunched back, big, wounded eyes---while also imbuing him with a manic fervor for the preservation of his secrets. Neptune Theatre reincarnated Nixon recently in the form of Canadian actor Jim Mezon (seen recently in Paul Gross’ Passchendaele) during its run of Frost/Nixon, the play by Peter Morgan on which this film is based. Focusing on British TV presenter David Frost’s 1977 interviews with Nixon about his presidency, Nixon’s gift of political oratory are on display until Frost brings up Watergate.

Mezon does not look much like the actual Nixon but maintains the recognizable defensiveness, while never reducing him to an insecure shell. Morgan’s play portrays Nixon as somewhat of a foil character to his gregarious interviewer, Frost, and Mezon makes Nixon knowing and canny, especially when confronting Frost with the quality the two share---the feeling of being a perpetual outsider.

Richard Nixon is now as much a subject of historical dramas as he is a subject of historians. It is the inner turmoil of the man that has made his life appealing to playwrights, filmmakers, actors and audiences. Nixon’s rise and public disgrace remain endlessly fascinating as a story for scholars to critique, artists to dramatize and audiences to appreciate, with all three entering into a spirited debate about his legacy.

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