At first glance you wouldn’t imagine television presenter David Frost and disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon have much in common. Frost was a well known playboy, as famous for his off screen antics as he was for his various television shows. Nixon was, well Richard Millhouse Nixon, the only US president to ever resign the presidency. They were an odd couple who became inextricably linked in the public’s mind following an historic series of interviews that brought in the largest audience for a news interview in history. In the new film Frost / Nixon, director Ron Howard details how much alike these two men actually were. He spends time forging psychological parallels between the pair as two men from modest circumstances who rose to the top of the heap in their fields but never earned the respect they felt they deserved.
When we first meet Frost (Michael Sheen) he’s a successful talk show host in Australia. His American show had been recently cancelled and he longed for another chance at fame in the US. “Success in America is unlike success anywhere else,” he says. Meanwhile Richard Nixon is about to resign the presidency following the Watergate scandal. When Frost—and 400,000,000 other people worldwide—watched Nixon’s resignation Frost saw a chance to rehabilitate his reputation. He understands that Nixon’s Shakespearean fall from grace would make great television, and he knows how to make great TV. He plans a series of four ninety minute interviews with Nixon covering a variety of subjects, including Watergate and the subsequent cover-up. Nixon signs on, for a price, seeing the interviews with the lightweight Frost as the perfect venue to mend his battered political status.
Based on a play by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan Frost / Nixon is one of the rare plays that actually works better as a film. Howard opens up the story taking us to places and events that are only talked about in the stage show. His work here is enlivened after the turgid DaVinci Code, with a quick pace that keeps the wordy script moving along at a fast clip.
There’s no action to speak of, save for the verbal sparring between interviewer and interviewee in their fourth and final televised meeting, and it is here that sparks fly. Sheen, best known to North American audiences for his portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen, gives a flamboyant performance as the showy Frost but this is Frank Langella’s movie.
In Langella’s hands Nixon, one of the most vilified public figures of the last fifty years becomes almost sympathetic and not because he is handled with kid gloves. Quite the opposite; Howard often shoots Nixon peering out from the shadows to subtly imply that he is a shady character and the script has great fun portraying the president as a money grubbing opportunist. He becomes sympathetic through Langella’s humanizing portrait. A man so often remembered in sound bites is shown here, in a commanding performance, as a real person, warts and all. He isn’t, by his own admission in the script, a likeable man, but Langella’s carefully calibrated performance unveils previously unseen aspects of his personality. In the film’s final half hour—the events leading up to the final interview and the interview itself—Langella delivers tour de force work that could win him the Oscar for Best Actor.
The timing of the release of Frost / Nixon is interesting. Obviously a December release date puts it squarely in line for Academy consideration but beyond that it is an interesting look at the sad post Oval Office life of a president who left office with a very low approval rating. George Bush, take note.