A duel: that’s how Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) anticipates his interview with David Frost (Michael Sheen). It’s a duel fought with words, not sabers, but there will be cut and thrust, lunge and parry, and at the end of the day only one of them will be vindicated.
This was to be no ordinary interview. It was the first time the former President had spoken to a journalist since his resignation three years before. Pardoned by President Ford, he had escaped the final humiliation of a trial. But for a little more than half a million dollars he agreed to talk to the British journalist for 28 hours, to be recorded over 12 days in the spring of 1977. It was a sweet, sweet deal – no legitimate US news outfit could afford to indulge in that kind of checkbook journalism with the disgraced Head of State. But Nixon needed something more than the money. He wanted back in… Rehabilitation. Even exoneration.
In Ron Howard’s film of Peter Morgan’s play (adapted by Morgan himself) Frost’s motives also have a mercenary aspect, although the production nearly bankrupts him when the networks send him packing. He wants in too. A British TV talk show host and light entertainer, he’s tasted fame and failure in America, and he knows this one coup could put him back on top.
The rules of engagement allowed that no questions were off-limits, but the time would be allocated to reflect the full measure of Nixon’s presidency. Watergate would be one topic among many, and reserved for their last encounter. (Though Frost does fire off one unexpected early shot across the bows.) The suspense is built-in – and no doubt, built up by this crafty British screenwriter.
Morgan has a thing about mismatched power couples: the relationships between Tony Blair and Elizabeth II in The Queen; a young Scottish medic and Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland; and between Anne Boleyn and Henry the VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, to name just his most recent credits. He seems both awed and appalled by these power-mongers, locked in the solitary confinement that political leadership entails – though his instinct is always to bring them down to earth, to find some common ground, however fleeting it may be. In Frost/Nixon, that moment of connection comes late in the day, when the drunken ex-President impetuously telephones his interlocutor for an off-the-record heart-to-heart… A scene that is entirely a figment of Morgan’s fertile imagination, by all accounts.
Ron Howard can be a stodgy director, but here, as in Apollo 13, he seems focused and energized by the historical material. And of course he understands the showbiz of politics/the politics of showbiz. The movie is snappy and sharp, with well drawn supporting characters: Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall and Oliver Platt in Frost’s camp; Toby Jones and Kevin Bacon attending to the President. Jones in particular steals his every scene as the bald germophobe and legendary agent Swifty Lazar, a neat counterpoint to his turn as Karl Rove in “W.”
Neither of the leads goes for a full-on impersonation. Michael Sheen – Tony Blair in The Queen – actually dials down Frost’s distinctive nasal drone, but suggests how this congenial suck-up coasted on his blow-dried charm, rakish sideburns and unrealistic self-confidence. Frost may be out of his depth, but he’s not about to let it cramp his style; he’s delighted when the ex-President admires his slip-on Italian shoes.
As Nixon, Frank Langella (like Sheen a holdover from the award-winning Broadway production) is suitably hunched and guttural but more patrician and less jowly than the real McCoy. Even so, it’s a heavyweight performance – one that has already earned him a BAFTA nomination (and an Oscar nod will surely have followed by the time you read this). This Nixon is full of pride and fury, cerebral and rigorous but fatally hungry for exoneration, or, failing that (though he never quite admits it), forgiveness.
Frost/Nixon doesn’t have much to say about the disgraced President that Oliver Stone (for one) hasn’t already explored in more depth, but by the last taping, in its glib and reductionist way, it works like a charm.
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