DIR: Ron Howard • WRI: Peter Morgan • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard • DOP: Salvatore Totino • ED: Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill • DES: Michael Corenblith • CAST: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Kevin Bacon
Frost/Nixon is a movie adaptation of an award-winning play, dramatising the events surrounding the most-watched interview in US TV history. The movie characterises contemporary figures, willingly being interviewed about their portrayal as part of the movie’s publicity (David Frost) and modern historic figures who have left indelible marks on political and cultural discourse (Richard Nixon). In being a treatment of one element of a larger-scale scandal and legacy, it is open to being doubly judged, firstly as a piece of entertainment and secondly as an account of a high-profile event.
The movie succeeds on both levels – it is a tightly wound, entertaining movie, with talented actors pedalling their trade. Characters are truly evoked on screen – in a lesser year Frank Langella would be a banker for an Oscar®, let alone a nomination, for his performance as Nixon. Certainly his actions and words become exalted but the standout scenes are those of the interview where what was considered his confession are delivered – quiet, reposed, fatalistic with discomfort. At one point a grimaced face looks to the camera and you need to catch your breath, the portrayal becomes so effective. This is his milkshake scene. Character is king here. Michael Sheen’s role as Frost should not be undervalued either; the man has carved out a niche of pitch-perfect portrayals, never impersonations, of historic figures. His character reflects a naivety and a guile, which ultimately proves key to the building sense of suspense and an oncoming battle.
You could put forward a hypothesis that everyone has some sense of who Richard Nixon was, his name has descended into such infamy – indeed as is remarked in the film, every political scandal of note since then has had the word ‘gate’ tagged on. Think of the countless times a Nixon mask has been worn in a bank heist movie or the parodying references to his sweaty brow and of course Matt Groening’s use of his dismembered head as a character in Futurama purely to continue to poke fun at him. It’s too easy to say the movie humanises him. The point of the exercise is not an exposé – no matter what the hearings prior to the Watergate scandal uncovered, they were a point of political order. The true accountability came with these interviews, a question and answer session beamed into American living rooms. People debate whether the result was truly a confession, or a futile effort at revealing already known details. Maybe the reality of what happened in the negotiations surrounding the interviews would portray a far more cynical set of motives. The movie, however, tells a story of a man conflicted by a desire to account for himself, tempered by material gain and proving his worth as a statesman.
A parallel is created with the travails of Frost and his desire to make an event without truly knowing his material. This is well done but in a way less interesting. An aura of respect and intrigue is effortlessly created around Nixon, almost through misdirection. Some sharp wit, reference to great achievements and depth of character are smartly included in a movie that also manages to be thrilling and suspenseful. Never once is there a sense we are watching an adaptation of a play and the lifelessness that can weigh down such a movie. Whether it is the script, use of mixed locales, the recreation of the era, the fact there is a call for claustrophobia at times or a combination of these elements, the movie is a comfortable watch with no niggling sense of why you are not engaging.
There are ‘robot-season movies’ and there are ‘end-of-year-season movies’, ‘Frost/Nixon’ clearly falls under the latter and may only attract a limited audience. This movie, however, can be watched and enjoyed with only cursory knowledge of the topic. It comes with a guarantee to compel your interest in the era and its people afterwards.