Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen
Running Time: 122 min.
**** (out of ****)
Well, at least we can take some solace in the fact that despite some of the Academy’s undeserving selections for nominations this year, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon definitely isn't one of them. While it does represent the kind of safe, politically minded material voters predictably respond to every year that doesn’t make its selection any less just. I’m all for taking risks and are as disappointed at this year’s nods as anyone else, but there’s no denying that this film, easily Howard’s finest, deserves to be among the five vying for Best Picture. From start to finish it's perfect.
The film will play best for those with a deep interest in history or politics, but what surprised me most is how stimulating it would be for everyone else, even those not interested in the subject at all. The trailers, commercials and promotional material don’t do justice to just how exciting it is and I mistakenly entered this film expecting a snobby, prestige picture. Instead what I got was a fascinating look at the power of the media and a thrilling intellectual boxing match that had me on pins and needles the entire time, palms sweating as I anxiously anticipated the final outcome. Though its doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel in terms of historical drama it tells the story it needs to in the most effective way possible and shines a light on an event and time period that hasn’t gotten much attention at all. I doubt many people even know what happened to Richard Nixon AFTER he resigned from office. I know I didn’t.
Deservedly, much buzz has surrounded Frank Langella’s Oscar nominated turn as our disgraced 37th President but it’s a performance that couldn’t have happened without co-star Michael Sheen. Nor could Sheen’s performance have connected without Langella’s, which is why it’s so odd to see just one of them making the rounds this awards season. It’s the very definition of a “team effort” and if Langella wins the Best Actor Oscar he should consider sawing it in half. And that statement isn’t meant to undermine Langella’s incredible work, but is rather a testament to the power of two actors at the top of their game bringing out their respective bests in one another.
The year is 1977 and just three years after he resigned the Presidency amidst the Watergate scandal, former President Nixon (Langella) is licking his wounds at his secluded beach house in California, thinking of ways he can rehab his shattered reputation and eventually head back East. Meanwhile the American public is fuming over news President Ford granted him a full pardon, absolving the former President of any criminal misconduct. At the suggestion of his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) Nixon entertains an offer to do a serious of sit-down interviews with British television host, David Frost (Sheen), who may as well be considered the Ryan Seacrest of his day (he even hosts a reality show). Frost is a self professed “performer” not a hard-hitting interviewer and his closest friend, longtime producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) is bewildered by his sudden ambition to go face to face with “Tricky Dick” but supports the seemingly insane decision that could wreck his broadcasting career.
Under terms outlined by his chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) Nixon agrees to a series of four interviews (planned to be broadcast as four separate 90-minute specials) even though nearly everyone doubts Frost will be able to come up with enough cash to insure even see the light of day. Frost hires Nixon historians and journalists Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to do the investigative legwork even though they don’t think he has a clue what he’s getting into. And they’re right, he doesn’t. Nixon is ready to eat this TV entertainer for breakfast, fully expecting to be lobbed softball questions that would make Larry King Live seem like an interrogation. That is what happens…at first.
One of the more humorous aspects of the film is the presentation early on of Nixon as that annoying uncle you always bump into at family reunions who can’t help but drone on about his accomplishments and share boring stories and anecdotes. With Nixon the B.S. is flying all over the place as he somehow finds a way to self-rationalize and explain away his botching of Vietnam and even the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. His motives and decision-making process closely resembles George W. Bush's in Oliver Stone’s W. in that he can convince himself anything he does is right, no matter how wrong.
He’s also somewhat delusional, insisting it was sweat on his upper lip that cost him the 1964 Presidential debate with John F. Kennedy. But there is a kernel of truth in that television, our most powerful medium, would never benefit someone like Nixon. In talking circles around everything he outmatches his inexperienced interviewer, bullying Frost with subtle, inappropriate verbal jabs before the cameras role to psyche him out. He cares a lot about Frost… way too much about him. And it’s that small, brilliant detail in Peter Morgan’s screenplay that takes the film from being a solid Best Picture nominee to a transcendent psychological duel on par with the best suspense films.
After a while we realize that Nixon’s obsession with “beating” Frost has more to do with him actually wanting TO BE HIM. Beyond simply being jealous of his youth and success, in Frost he sees the man he could have been if he had the people skills. His fixation on every detail of his interviewer's life from his shoes to his girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) suggest what in Nixon’s personality really caused the Watergate break-in and why he covered it up. For Nixon, he and Frost are really two sides of the same coin. Both have accomplished much in their given fields but neither are taken seriously or respected by the mainstream public. He can’t get anyone to see past Watergate while Frost can’t get anyone to see past his lightweight reputation as a showman. Both are willing to wreck their careers to change those perceptions, true or untrue as they may be.
There can only be one winner and a turning point comes for Frost when he sees his opening and must summon up everything inside him to take advantage of it. His motives in going after the interview are never completely clear, but we believe it comes from a desperation to be something more than a TV host, just as Nixon had aspirations to be more than just the President. Sheen conveys Frost’s confident swagger with charm but what’s most impressive about the performance (which I can’t believe went unnominated in a year this weak) is the masked disappointment that he isn’t better. His priorities shift from merely providing entertainment to bearing the incredible burden of giving Nixon “the trial he never had.” Everyone was right that Frost didn’t know what he signed up for but when the moment comes where he finally does it's game on.
It’s in this stunning reversal where feelings are brought to the surface about what Nixon did that I didn't expect to have. Langella gives you a window into the man, to the point where you can almost see how in his warped, insecure mind what he did made sense and felt right. And you take pity on him. When I first saw the clips of him in the role I laughed because I thought he was attempting an impersonation. Now after actually watching the film I realize it isn’t the kind of performance that benefits from being shown brief clips or given sound bites of him talking like Nixon.
This is an evolutionary performance that reveals itself slowly as the layers of the story unfold. Less an impersonation and more of a full immersion and embodiment of his soul. At first glance Langella doesn’t look or sound much like Nixon but as the film wears on he engulfs the man and everything else he does (including how he looks) follows suit. By the climactic scene, which finds the combatants in a far different state then when they started, I didn’t think for a second I was watching Frank Langella walking out of that house. It was Richard Nixon. Or at least Ron Howard’s and Peter Morgan’s interpretation of who he could have been.
Even having not seen the original Frost/Nixon interviews it’s fairly obvious a lot of creative license was taken with the material. But that’s okay. The film works as kind of a wish fulfillment history where we finally get out of Nixon what we always wanted. What was embellished for dramatic effect or flat-out fabricated is irrelevant when the end result is this satisfying. It’s based on Peter Morgan’s stage play (which is a work of fiction based on historical events), not the original interview so it’s unfair to hold the film up to such detailed, fact-based scrutiny.
Howard employs docu-style filming approach cut-in with fake interviews and actual newsreel footage. This quasi-documentary method has been overused of late but it really works well here keeping things moving at a surprisingly brisk pace. I know Howard would never top anyone’s list as one of the most visually inventive or risk-taking filmmakers but he could have very easily screwed this up. It’s tough adapting a stage play, much less one centering on two talking heads but Howard builds momentum slowly until the action boils. He was also smart enough to get the two actors who originated the roles on stage even while the studio pressure was probably on to score bigger names. No one else could have played those parts. It’s a classic set-up followed by the ultimate payoff and I was on the edge of my seat hanging on every word. Frost/Nixon is the rarest of historical dramas in that it intellectually excites you in the events and people that inspired the film.