Frost/Nixon

In 1977, David Frost, better known in England and Australia as a talk show host, landed the biggest interview imaginable at the time: Richard Nixon, the disgraced ex-president who’d been forced to resign a few years earlier. Frost paid Nixon for the interview, a controversial practice back then, and because he was unknown in the States, much of the upfront money came from Frost’s own account. He couldn’t get a network to air the interviews and therefore had to syndicate it himself. In order to make his money back and keep whatever reputation he had, Frost had to break Nixon. He had to make these interviews the trial that Nixon never had.

Based on Peter Morgan’s 2006 play by the same title, Frost/Nixon details the drama of both the confrontational interviews and the gripping story around them. According to the film, Nixon wanted to come off as sympathetic in order to “move back east.” Now I find it hard to believe that he thought he could gain elected office again but perhaps he just wanted to move in those circles of power once more. David Frost wanted to be a celebrity in America, attend Hollywood parties and be able to get a table at Sardis any time he wanted. The movie that Ron Howard has made of the play is a fascinating study of these two very different men.

Of course it all hinges on the performances of the two leads and here we have hit the jackpot. When I saw Frank Langella do Nixon in the previews, I thought it looked like a horrible performance, a bad Nixon imitation. But when I saw the entire performance, I changed my mind. Langella plays Nixon as physically awkward, a man more used to living in his mind than his body. He brought out Nixon’s imposing presence, a thick hunched over body, deep gravely voice and an overabundance of gravitas. He often asks questions which seem to come from out of the blue or are even inappropriate. Langella’s Nixon knows how to keep people off their guard.

Michael Sheen is making a career out of playing British icons, first Tony Blair in The Queen and now David Frost. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about David Frost but a lot of Sheen’s impersonation seems familiar. His Frost is feckless, but ambitious. His reasons for wanting this interview may be shallow, but to him they are no less motivating. Like Nixon, he wants to be loved. The difference being that that is enough for Frost. One can’t ever imagine Nixon being satisfied.

The supporting performances are all excellent. Sam Rockwell plays political journalist James Reston Jr., capturing his rage at Nixon’s abuses of power. On the other side, Kevin Bacon is formidable as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s aide-de-camp and chief bulldog.

Director Ron Howard does a terrific job of taking a very stagey script and making it cinematic. I’ve said before that I think Howard is one of the best directors working today inside the Hollywood system.

Frost/Nixon may be hard to find. I had to drive across town to see it, but it was well worth the effort.

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