19 December 2008
Two men sit down and talk to each other. Sounds like the stuff of a great film, huh?
How about if one of those guys is British talk show host David Frost? What's that do for you? What if the other is the most infamous figure in the history of American politics?
Interesting, sure, but cinematic?
Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard and featuring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon—the roles they played in Peter Morgan's stage play in Britain and on Broadway—plays like an epic tragedy and is nothing short of riveting.
Working from Morgan's own adaptation, Howard uses news footage and talking head segments to create a documentary feel as Frost, an entertainer more than a journalist, puts everything he has on the line to make the series of interviews a success.
The director treats the confrontation between the two men, which occurred in spring 1977, not as a proverbial game of chess, but as something much more blunt and forceful—a boxing match.
Frost, as the aggressor seeking to force Nixon into admitting his role in the Watergate cover-up, must be constantly on the attack, throwing out a steady barrage of jabs, hooks and upper cuts. Nixon can hang back, save his energy, bob and weave, stall, wait for his opponent to make himself vulnerable—when he does, the former president can drone on for 23 minutes in a single answer (as he does in response to Frost's first question), earn respect by discussing his real accomplishments while in office or engender sympathy by talking about his family.
Each fighter has men (and women) in his corner. For Frost, there is his longtime producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), veteran journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), staunch Nixon critic James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and socialite Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), who he meets on a flight from Britain to Los Angeles. Nixon's most loyal aide is Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), his chief of staff. A young Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) also works for him.
Langella, who won a Tony Award for his work on stage, gives a masterful performance, wisely steering clear from a straight impersonation. Nixon mimicry long ago fell into the realm of parody. Instead, Langella focuses on the man's internal struggles—his desperation, the anguish slowly eating him alive inside, the manipulative nature that helped him become the most powerful man in the world and the hubris that prevented from him offering the confession or apology that would have allowed the nation to heal and move on. We do not feel sympathy—and the movie never asks us to do so—but we can have empathy.
Nixon sees the interviews as a chance to clear his name and move from California, where he has been in virtual hiding since his resignation, back east to the heart of political activity. He chooses Frost for his first interview since his resignation because Frost is paying him $600,000 (mostly out of his own pocket) and because he and his advisors figure Frost, accustomed to making nice with celebrities, will throw out softball questions that will allow the ex-president to remain in control.
The whole thing starts a publicity stunt for Frost, who has talk shows in Britain and Australia but is hardly seen as a serious journalist. He sometimes comes across as arrogant, but really he just wants people to like him. Nixon remarks that maybe they should have had each other's careers, Frost as the likable politician and he as the tenacious interviewer.
You almost feel sorry for Sheen, who himself gives a remarkable performance in a movie Langella dominates. Such was also the case in The Queen (also written by Morgan), which won an Oscar for Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, while Sheen anchored the film as British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In time, he will have his moment in the spotlight; he's too good an actor not to.
In lesser hands, Frost/Nixon could have been a colossal bore. It consists simply of people talking to each other. There are no dazzling visual effects, no gunshots, no explosions, no lives on the line. But it is a thriller in every sense of the word and one of the best movies of the year.
(Rated R for some language. 122 minutes.)