When the actual interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon aired way back in 1977 I was just a youngster with no interest in politics or much else of any great import. I probably could not even say the name "Nixon," much less "Watergate" or "resignation." Fast-forward to today and you will find the adult me still pretty much clueless when it comes to the Frost/Nixon interviews or any of the Watergate specifics.
I know, just your typical "dumb American," and I admit that my knowledge of history is lacking, not to mention a few other subjects as well. So, while I am not taking this film as absolute truth (an approach taken with any true story adaptation), I do see it as an interesting window into a fascinating moment in time. The movie isn't half bad either.
Frost/Nixon opens by introducing us to Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) as he resigns from the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal and pretty much removing himself from the public eye. I suppose it was for the best – his disappearance, that is. He was a polarizing figure who wasn’t exactly in the good graces of the public; I'd disappear, too.
The opening also introduces us to David Frost (Michael Sheen), who lost his show in America and works on a fluffy interview show in Australia. The man is shown to thrive on his public appearance and desperately wants to get back in with the American crowd, where he believes the greatest success can be had.
The first act spends most of its time on getting David Frost into position. Following Nixon’s resignation announcement, Frost gets the idea that he would like to interview him for whatever reason. To that end he makes some calls, but it doesn't seem likely. However, with Nixon looking to rehab his image, and seeing Frost as the best candidate for a fluffy interview and the biggest paycheck, he accepts Frost's offer. Now Frost only has to get some questions together and find someone to air the interviews. This latter element proves to be the most difficult.
Once he gets the pieces together, the film moves into the second act, which focuses on the interviews. This is the real meat and potatoes of the film and the real reason to want to watch it. I didn't care about the setup or the eventual conclusion; I was there to see the verbal confrontations between the two men of the title. Not knowing anything about the interviews, this was my interest.
What a duel it is. The whole series of interviews as shown is fascinating, including the research build up and the work provided by producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Besides the work they did to prepare Frost for the interviews, they were also interesting characters – particularly Reston and his desire to take the fight to Nixon and give him the trial he never had.
It is interesting, but the film as a whole is not a great one. I have never been the biggest fan of director Ron Howard. It’s not bad by any stretch, but there is nothing terribly distinctive about his films. What makes Frost/Nixon work so well is the wonderful screenplay and the performances.
The screenplay was penned by Peter Morgan based on his own play. It is a sparkling example of words all in the right order without a word out of place. On top of that, with Frank Langella delivering a good portion of the words, they take on an almost Shakespearean quality. Not to mention there is an interesting relevancy to the current state of government surrounding our exiting President, stuck home by the line in the trailer: "I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal!"
The acting is quite good all the way around. The supporting cast was very good with Kevin Bacon playing Nixon's handler (I guess that was his role, certainly seemed that way, or perhaps security), and the previously mentioned Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. I particularly liked Rockwell's work – funny, intense, and helped provide some drive for Frost.
The leads were excellent. Michael Sheen brings a certain superficiality to the role, which seemed to work disguising some actual depth. However, it is Frank Langella's Nixon who steals the show. He is not exactly the perfect look-alike, but he makes you believe, and you will believe. He is quite charismatic and just a little bit slimy. Just right.
Bottom line. This movie is all about the show and the sparring – and it delivers. You will be glued to the screen as the titans go to work. It may not be a movie to revisit often, but it is one that should be experienced.