The easy answer is Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. I’ve been studying Lincoln all my life and before I sat in the theater and watched that movie, that’s how I imagined Lincoln spoke and moved and acted. It was amazing. (And after Lincoln sat in this theatre, he decided not to go to any more plays.)
Another one is Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. Now, Langella isn’t impersonating Nixon in there. He’s not really trying to do an impression of Nixon like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (another performance I really enjoyed for different reasons). But Langella got inside Nixon in a way that was just remarkable. There’s a scene at the end of the film where Michael Sheen’s David Frost character visits Nixon to say good-bye after they filmed the interviews. Nixon tells Frost, “You were a worthy opponent,” because Nixon looked at everything in life like a battle.
Then Frost gives Nixon a pair of fancy shoes that Nixon had noticed Frost wearing in their first meeting. Nixon is touched and the humanity that Langella gives Nixon is just incredible. Then he talks to Frost privately and asks him if he enjoys all the parties that Frost goes to, and Frost is like, “Yeah, of course”. And Langella/Nixon looks at him and says, “You got no idea how fortunate that makes you. You know? Liking people, and being liked…It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinged on being liked.” At the end, as Nixon is all alone, and looking at the shoes that Frost gave him, and looking out at the ocean, the look on Langella’s face (as Nixon) just breaks my heart. I’m not even a big Nixon fan, but that’s a hell of a performance.
Frost/Nixon was definitely a great movie. Frank Langella’s portrayal of President Nixon was so compelling. Instead of ratcheting things up and making Nixon a caricature, Langella made some really subtle choices that sold the main themes of the film and humanized Nixon. After everything that Nixon had done, Langella’s portrayal of him gave me some empathy for him. He deserved to lose the Presidency, he deeply wounded the country, and his actions destroyed any innocence Americans still had about their government and their leaders. But Langella showed the personal pain and sorrow that Nixon seemed to finally recognize literally in the middle of one of the interviews with David Frost.
Most remarkable to me was the end of the movie when Frost brings Nixon a pair of the expensive shoes that the former President had noticed Frost wearing at an earlier meeting. First of all, we caught a glimpse of what Nixon’s exile was like. For most of us, being able to retire to a beautiful beachfront mansion in San Clemente would be paradise. But La Casa Pacifica was no La Casa Blanca. For all his faults, though, Nixon was a man of action. Like LBJ before him, Nixon had no idea what to do with all of the time in the world and no power, no problems to solve. Nor did he have many friends left. That moment where Frost gives Langella’s Nixon the shoes is powerful because we see something interesting in Nixon’s eyes — and this is where Langella deserves so much credit because he got the point across without saying or telegraphing a single thing. He sold the feeling with his subtle expressions.
Accepting the shoes, Nixon switches from wary to surprised to grateful. Paranoia destroyed his Presidency that paranoia seemed to wonder what Frost’s endgame was. Was he spiking the football to rub his interview successes in? No, Frost was sincere and Nixon’s appreciation added to the personal revelation, the sense of loss that Nixon had recognized during the interview. Not everybody was out to get him, even if they were on the other side of the aisle, or, in Frost’s case, the other side of the interview set. It was as if Nixon finally took his own words — the impromptu remarks he made to White House staff before resigning — to heart. During that final speech, Nixon rambled at times, he choked back tears, he thanked the people he worked with, and he did what Richard Nixon had never done — he spoke from the heart and ended up giving the best speech of his life. Towards the end, he said, “Always give your best; never get discouraged; never be petty. Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” The beauty of Frank Langella’s performance in Frost/Nixon is that he gets all of those emotions or actions — shame, sorrow, regret, uncertainty, loneliness, and the beginnings of forgiveness — across in that one scene, and he does so with his eyes and his facial expressions. It’s a magnificent bit of acting by Langella.
For the second part of your question, nothing can really vindicate Nixon for Watergate and his Administration’s excesses, not even a masterful film portrayal by a great actor. Yet, Nixon is, and always has been, one of the more fascinating Presidents, in my opinion. The 20th Century was full of towering figures, good and bad, and Nixon is one of the tallest. His life took up most the century that would become known as the “American Century”. He served the nation from World War II until his death, acting as a behind-the-scenes adviser to Presidents on foreign policy, particularly when it came to China and the Soviet Union/Russia. Richard Nixon did some dumb things, but he was a brilliant, brilliant leader who was capable of quickly grasping many difficult details and formulating a plan — often unilaterally — to tackle problems. Very few leaders of any kind of background have that unique capability.
People often recall how physically awkward Nixon was, and the White House taping system which helped bring down his Presidency certainly made the President sound like a boorish, insensitive asshole who disliked people and was thus a terrible politician. He may have been most of those things, but he wasn’t a terrible politician. A terrible politician doesn’t get elected to Congress at 33 years old, the U.S. Senate at 37, and get sworn in as Vice President of the United States just a few days after his 40th birthday. It’s impossible for a bad politician to find himself on a national campaign ticket FIVE TIMES — twice successfully as General Eisenhower’s Vice President and three times as the GOP’s Presidential nominee.
As popular and appealing as John F. Kennedy was, Richard Nixon very nearly beat him in 1960 to become President. In fact, shady voting irregularities in Texas and Cook County, Illinois swung the election in JFK’s favor. Many historians have a different description for those “irregularities”: “voter fraud”. Despite strong evidence that the election had been stolen from him, Nixon refused to contest the results. Most likely, there had been some “irregularities” on NIxon’s side, too, and Nixon didn’t want to open up that can of worms.
If Nixon wasn’t a bad guy, he wasn’t a good guy, either. I don’t know that I like him, but he was an impressive man and, before he began the downward spiral of paranoia and vindictiveness which destroyed his Presidency, his gifts as a leader and as his own top diplomat were resulting in historic and positive relationships between the United States and much of the rest of the world. Nixon had all of the tools to be one of the great Presidents of all-time, but he brought it all down upon himself.
I may have answered this question more completely somewhere else on the website but I can’t seem to find it right now. Without getting too in-depth right now, I loved Frost/Nixon and thought it was a great movie from beginning-to-end. Frank Langella did an amazing job as Nixon and really captured some very important aspects on Nixon’s life. I thought Langella was uncanny in the way that he showed some vulnerability in Nixon in very subtle ways, as well as the loneliness and isolation that obviously consumed Nixon while he was President but also after he resigned and went into his political exile in San Clemente.
There are people who frequently talk about how it’s difficult to humanize Nixon because of his failures and his behavior which bordered on sociopathic in certain instances, but the truth is that those examples specifically make it easy to humanize Richard Nixon. In Frost/Nixon, Langella made me feel sympathy for Nixon. His performance showed Nixon as cagey, unapologetic, and a fierce match for David Frost in the interviews while simultaneously introducing us to a tortured, heartbroken, disgraced former President who wanted to be loved by his country and seemed to need a friend.
Again, I loved the movie and wish I could have seen Frost/Nixon performed on stage, where I believe it got its start.