Movie Review: Frost/Nixon
By Matthew Huntley
December 22, 2008
Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon is a tense, involving drama about two men who always assume too much about each other. While it recounts the real-life interviews between David Frost and former president Richard Nixon, it has the mood and tone of great fiction. As with Milk, the facts and reality of the situation seem beside the point. What matters is the dynamic storytelling and terrific performances.
Frank Langella reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Richard Nixon, the infamous 37th president who will forever be linked to the 1974 Watergate scandals. The film opens with archival news footage of the events, including a reading of the Supreme Court's unanimous decision that forced Nixon to hand over his recorded White House conversations, which ultimately revealed his involvement. Ten days later, Nixon resigned as president and was later issued a full pardon by his replacement, Gerald Ford.
David Frost (Michael Sheen), the charismatic and often flippant English talk show host, watches Nixon's departure from the White House on television, with his famous waving of arms and peace signs. Close-ups between Frost and Nixon suggest the two are exchanging their first menacing glances. Even though they haven't met each other yet, the television connects them.
Frost asks his producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfayden), how many viewers watched Nixon's helicopter exit and tells him he wants an exclusive interview with the man. Birt and others think Frost's chances are slim. After all, Frost is but a mere talk show host - light, humorous, and hardly serious. People consider him a man with little political knowledge or convictions. "But he knows how television works."
Ironically, those same qualities prompt Nixon to agree to the interview. He and his post-presidential Chief of Staff (Kevin Bacon) figure Frost for an ignoramus and an unworthy opponent who won't challenge Nixon on any hard issues.
Unlike other high-profile news anchors like Walter Cronkite, Frost would pay for the interviews. Nixon's literary agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), settles on $600,000 for four 90-minute sessions. Frost pays despite no guarantee he'll be able to sell the footage to any major network. With the aid of two American investigators, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and his new girlfriend (Rebecca Hall), Frost, unprepared and inexperienced, sets out to interview one of the world's most controversial figures.
The heart and soul of Frost/Nixon comes from the characterizations of its two main players. Peter Morgan's screenplay, adapted from his own play, sees Frost and Nixon as two insecure and sad men, and we get insights into each man from the other characters (the film cuts to interviews of them, which take place after-the-fact).
It's important that the film doesn't see its characters in terms of black and white or right and wrong. Howard teases us into sometimes thinking he'll turn this into a typical Hollywood crowd-pleaser in which the underdog Frost grills the heavyweight Nixon, but it's less sensational and more thoughtful than that.
Howard's film has the patience and time to let us see Frost and Nixon as two complicated people and not just historical icons. Both men underestimate the other and it's amusing and riveting when they both discover this. The intensity is kept high because Howard's longtime editors, Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill, give the film a kinetic rhythm and energy. They know when to cut. Given the material and set ups (heavy dialogue and static shots), it seems a film like this wouldn't be able to hold our attention so easily, but it does.
The interview scenes themselves are nail-biting and sometimes darkly humorous. While many viewers will already know the outcome of the final session, which Nixon agreed would be the only one where he'd discuss Watergate, it's still fascinating and emotional, as is Nixon and Frost's mysterious conversation the night before that begins with "cheeseburgers."
When Nixon finally admits he let his country down, it's not shocking so much as it is sad. We're not sympathetic towards Nixon, but we do empathize with him. We're sad because the leader of the free world is admitting he did something he knew was wrong and should be considered criminal. As a result, our ideals are shaken, and that's hard to accept.
The film's performances are its most striking qualities. Langella deserves praise for the way he makes Nixon such a fascinating creature despite our abhorrence and shame towards him (Josh Brolin did a similar thing as George W. Bush in "W"). Langella doesn't much look like Nixon, but that doesn't matter. He embodies his humility and even though we don't necessarily respect or admire his character, we can't help but listen to him and take him seriously. Langella gives Nixon a kind of supreme presence and he's ceaselessly watchable.
Sheen is strong, too, and turns Frost into more than just the straight man. We see the real fear in his eyes when Frost imagines the interviews could make or break his career. He starts off cheery and giddy, but later descends (or perhaps ascends) into a man who takes his role as an informative journalist seriously. In a way, this is Frost's coming-of-age story.
I'd like to know Universal Pictures' intentions with releasing Frost/Nixon so close to the president's inauguration. Perhaps they felt it would be a good marketing ploy because it ties in so well with what's sure to be on people's mind after watching this film - whether or not George W. Bush will one day appear on camera and be interrogated about his controversial presidency. Talk about a man who has some explaining to do. But even if such an event doesn't actually happen, I'm certain the idea of it could be made into a great film, just like this one.