Frost/Nixon (2008) dir. Ron Howard
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
Time and again the political life of Richard Nixon has made for great drama. Why is a man so reviled and self-effacing as Nixon more interesting to watch than someone like John Kennedy, or Robert Kennedy, or Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush, younger, more interesting people? Other than the fact that he has directly been involved with some of the most significant political events of the last half of the 20th century, Nixon is a man with a character made for Hollywood – one of the great Hollywood villains, an ambitious man of power and intellect, lacking in the charm and good looks of a hero but with enough deep-rooted self-loathing for us to understand and identify with his failings.
Each decade since the 70’s has produced a great film about Nixon and/or Watergate. Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (1976), Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” (1984), and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” links in well as an accompany piece to each of these distinct films.
As the title suggests the film centers around the interviews British talk show host David Frost did with Richard Nixon in 1977, a television event which, in the eyes of many political watchers, gave America the only public apology and admonition of guilt from the former President.
Frost first hatches the bold idea of interviewing Nixon after watching his exit from the White House on television. After submitting a request to the President, Frost half doesn’t expect even a response, after all just about every major journalist is clamouring for access to the man. But Nixon and his advisors see Frost as more of a fluffy celebrity chaser than a real journalist and accepts the proposal.
Once in the same room Frost quickly realizes how shrewd a negotiator, politician and debater Nixon is. Over the course of a number of days it’s a battle of words between Frost and Nixon. As each day goes by Nixon sails through the questioning unscathed. With Frost’s reputation and personal finances on the line Frost has to find the cajones to truly challenge Nixon on Watergate and give him the trial he never received.
It all makes for a fascinating battle of wills and words. Writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard play the dynamic between Nixon and Frost as a David and Goliath battle. Both make great characters – hero and villain – both looking to surmount their internal character flaws in order to win the battle.
Michael Sheen plays Frost with a fun mix of pompous confidence and insecure inferiority complex. Frost seems content with coasting on the accomplishment of just getting the gig with the President. The name dropping is certainly enough to convince a young girl to shag him on a plane. But when Nixon comes face-to-face with Frost, impeccably prepared and ready for battle the gravitas of the stakes are finally realized.
As for Nixon, he continues to use the same underhanded word game political tricks which gave him the nickname Tricky Dick. Frank Langella’s Nixon is as good as Anthony Hopkins. Though in certain shadows and silhouettes the resemblance is uncanny his performance never falls into impersonation or parody.
Ron Howard’s direction is typically workmanlike. But it’s mostly talk, and he admirably lets the words on the page and his fine actors tell the story. In the final climatic moments Frost bests Nixon at his own game finally giving Nixon his comeuppance. It’s a wonderful moment, likely an embellishment to how the moment played out in real life, but a mark of great cinema. The emotional core of Frost and Nixon’s characters - these dueling personalities finishing their sometimes dirty, sometimes honourable fight - a fight as thrilling and entertaining with words as fists.