In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I wasn’t very politically aware when British talk-show host David Frost took former President Richard Nixon to task (and ultimately to the woodshed) during a series of television interviews in 1977. When the interviews aired, I was still at a stage in my life when I responded to new people by peeing on them and screaming. My point is, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the events depicted in Frost/Nixon. I’m not sure if that makes me a better choice to review the film, or a worse one; either way, there it is.
Frost/Nixon begins with a montage of news footage, interspersed with mockumentary-syle talking-head interviews that fill us in on the backstory: the details of the infamous Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation, and his full pardon from Gerald Ford. When we meet the disgraced ex-president (Frank Langella), he’s about to undertake what looks like an impossible attempt to salvage his reputation. At his side is his stalwart strategist (and prime candidate for proctological stick removal) Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). When talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks Nixon for an interview, Nixon sees a prime opportunity to remake his image in the eyes of the American public. Frost just sees an opportunity to capture the American fame that has so far eluded him.
But getting airtime isn’t easy. His popularity in England isn’t worth much stateside, and the networks aren’t interested in broadcasting the interviews. When Frost decides to finance the interviews himself, the stakes quickly become higher than he ever imagined.
It’s impossible to write about Frost/Nixon without boxing metaphors, so let’s get those out of the way. It’s been called a “boxing film without the gloves,” and that’s as apt a description as any. Writer Peter Morgan (who adapted his play for the screen) and director Ron Howard play up the sparring angle whenever they see an opportunity—and they see lots of opportunities. The film is at its best when Frost and Nixon are trading verbal punches, occasionally pausing to retreat to their corners for advice: Brennan’s got Nixon’s back, while journalists James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), along with producer John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen), provide support for Frost.
There’s another character who isn’t listed in the credits, but just might be the most important character in the movie: television. While it’s ostensibly the story of Nixon’s fall, it’s just as much about television’s ability to shape our perceptions, what Reston memorably calls “the reductive power of the close-up.” Ironically, it’s this power that elevates Frost/Nixon from a filmed play to a work of cinema. Langella and Sheen originated these roles on stage, but only on film can we get close enough to see every nuance of expression that marks these fine performances.
Langella owns Frost/Nixon from his somewhat sinister introduction to his thoughtful and melancholy final scene. When he’s onscreen, we can’t look at anyone else; when he’s off-screen, we want him back in front of the camera. Frost/Nixon will show mainstream audiences what film geeks have known for years: that Langella is one of the best actors around, and is long overdue for the Best Actor Oscar nomination he received last week (one of five nods for Frost/Nixon, along with Best Picture, direction, editing, and adapted screenplay). All of the supporting actors are good, but Rockwell excels as the belligerent, crusading Reston.
There’s no way around the political and social implications of Frost/Nixon. With its themes of a disgraced president struggling to justify actions that many consider unjustifiable, it’s a timely movie, and its finale hints at a catharsis for a disgruntled American public. The closest contemporary counterpart many young Americans can imagine would be seeing saucy Brit talk show host Graham Norton undertake a probing interview of Dubya, but that isn’t a fitting comparison. Frost graduated with a First in English from Cambridge (that’s, like, really hard) and Nixon, while he may have been unscrupulous, was whip-smart. When the niceties are put aside and the real battle begins, sparks—along with a few metaphorical teeth—fly.