Despite dealing with subject matter of vast American political and historical importance, Frost/Nixon is a rather small-scale film, and it’s much better for it. Rather than trying to assemble a political drama that ramped up to an ending with earth-shaking ramifications, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan, adapting his own play, have taken an approach that doesn’t overestimate the events they’re bringing to the screen.
In reality, the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews didn’t have any sweeping, long-term effect, and Frost only elicited the slightest of confessions from the disgraced former president. But as far as theatrical drama goes, this is a story that has plenty to spare, and the extremely well-paced script and engrossing performances ensure we don’t miss any of it.
Frank Langella excels as Nixon, a role he won a Tony for and has clearly become enveloped in over the last several years. Though his physical resemblance is fleeting, there’s scarcely a moment in the film where you don’t believe he is the actual Richard Nixon. Hardly a hatchet job, there are a number of scenes where you can’t help but like the guy, even if he’s totally paranoid or despicable the very next scene.
Standing his ground alongside him in scene after scene is Michael Sheen, a far too underrated actor, who captures David Frost’s charisma and need to please battling against one another rather well.
The main event – Nixon and Frost going toe-to-toe in what Nixon refers to several times as a no-holds-barred brawl – is excellent, but the film gets credit for not simply creating a series of dull expository scenes just to prod the film along to its clear drawing point. It also helps that the cast is packed with great character actors in supporting roles – Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell – and a strong performance from Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s chief of staff.
The only scene that really rings false is a late-night phone call where a drunk Nixon rings Frost in his hotel room, where he emphasizes many of the themes already established in the film. It’s the biggest departure from the truth in a film that of course, has plenty of smaller inaccuracies, but its real problem is it’s just not necessary. Besides being a showcase of great acting by Langella, it just serves to explicitly reinforce the idea that the interviews were a series of duels between outsiders. A bit heavy-handed, it’s one of the film’s few obvious missteps.
Howard’s direction has never been all that impressive, but he’s got a great script this time around, making Frost/Nixon one of his best films yet.
The Blu-ray Disc
Frost/Nixon is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. There are a few problems visually, but overall, this is a great presentation thanks to detailed production design and an interesting color palette. There are two vastly different kind of shots in this film – one being those used in the actual narrative of the film, and the other in the faux-documentary shots that feature retrospective talking heads with some of the characters. The latter are permeated with grain by design, and have had nearly all of the color sucked out, leaving an image that looks rather flat. The distinction between these shots and the narrative shots is more visually jarring than I remember seeing in the theater.
The rest of the film looks great, though, thanks mostly to an incredibly saturated color palette that looks like it’s been marinating in the time period-specific aura of the ‘70s ever since then. A nearly ubiquitous mustard yellow color seems to be a part of nearly every scene, and along with reds and blues, is deep and rich. Scenes set at Nixon’s San Clemente retreat are especially gorgeous, with the blue and white of the frothy ocean really popping out.
Elsewhere, picture sharpness is nearly always strong, although there did appear to be some traces of ghosting in the later interview scenes. Black levels and skin tones are consistent throughout.
The audio is presented in Dolby DTS-HD, and it’s a heavily dialogue-driven mix, with the great majority of the burden falling on the front channel. The unobtrusive score sounds crisp and clear, and some light ambient sound is present in a few scenes.
Other than the 30 minutes of fairly uninteresting deleted scenes, all of the special features are presented in high def. The making-of doc is pretty much a snore, but there are some interesting tidbits in the other featurettes, one of which shows a few brief clips of the real interviews as compared with the film, and another which chronicles the filmmakers using some of the real locations depicted in the film. There’s also a short look at the Nixon Library and a feature commentary by Howard.
Being a Universal release, this Blu-ray also comes with the pointless U-Control feature that allows you to watch most of the extras in picture-in-picture while the film plays.
The Bottom Line
Frost/Nixon avoids any potential dull moments to deliver a well-crafted story with striking performances. It’s also a successful period piece that looks great in high definition, making the Blu-ray an excellent choice.