Based on the play by the same author and starring the same two lead actors – but originally inspired by the events surrounding the famous David Frost / Richard Nixon interviews subsequent to Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency of the United States in scandal – director Ron Howard walks a fine line between portraying events people will assume familiarity with and imbuing the protagonists with failings and inadequacies that mean both come out sympathetic. Whether there has been enough time passed for angry American viewers to accept their disgraced former leader was human is another concern, but there can be no question as to the quality of the performances and the success of the film.
Frost / Nixon focusses rather tightly on the period after the Watergate scandal and Nixon leaving the Oval Office, with only minimal backstory to qualify the two leads for their roles. Nixon is heard in White House recordings and press conferences, before giving his famous ‘Victory’ salute on boarding Marine One for the last time. Frost is shown hosting a successful light entertainment talk show in Australia (of all places!), desperately wanting to return to the spotlight of the American big time. He realises an interview with the former President could be his ticket to achieving long-term success in America, while Nixon hopes to rehabilitate his public image. The film is smart enough to give enough backstory for those unfamiliar while not lingering on the details – the duel between the two men is rightly the focus.
As with most films that rely on a duel of sorts between two characters, Frost/Nixon succeeds on the strength of the performances of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Both are superb in roles they created first on stage in London, then Broadway, before finally transitioning them to the screen. Langella in particular is wonderful, bringing shades to his role that may be unforeseen if one expects Nixon to be the political boogeyman. His use of his face – aided by lighting and camerawork that accentuates the recesses of his eyes – to allow Nixon a range of human expression and emotion is simply extraordinary.
Similarly, Sheen gives a wonderful performance as David Frost, in spite of being somewhat of a support act to Langella’s bravura turn. His Frost is a charming television operator, yet strangely naive and misguided – he needs the advice of his friends and colleagues in the lead up to the interviews, but is so distracted by arranging financing that he won’t take it. More at home in light entertainment than serious political commentary, Sheen makes Frost appealing in spite of his flaws and most audiences would be hard pressed not to enjoy his moment of triumph.
Frost is supported by Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall and Oliver Platt, all of whom are adequate in small roles. On Nixon’s side, Kevin Bacon gets the most out of a limited character, while Toby Jones and Kate Jennings Grant (as a young Diane Sawyer!) are mostly window dressing.
Ron Howard moves the film along at pace, wisely choosing when to linger or whether more exposition is needed. In spite of the ending being well known – and certainly it was in the trailer, so most viewers will be aware now even if not before – he manages to turn Frost/Nixon into a thriller of sorts, with tension building throughout. Howard allows the peaks and troughs of a thriller, and in spite of this not being the most typical story for that form, the overall effect succeeds.
It is probably the decision to humanise Nixon, however, that could be most controversial for Morgan and Howard – Nixon is shown as an intelligent and noble man, who has somehow lost his way, with Langella even performing the ‘Nixon: Piano Concerto No. 1’ for family and friends. In the context of a fictionalised retelling of well-known events, this works far better than if Nixon had been portrayed as monster.
It may not be perfect, but Frost/Nixon is a wonderful experience on the strength of its lead performances and sharp writing. Released amidst the glut of awards candidates opening on Boxing Day, one wonders if it will gain the audience it deserves.Rating: