For those a little hazy on the history behind the film: The 1977 David Frost interviews with disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon proved to be the first time that Nixon seriously addressed his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s previously tight-lipped demeanour melted as Frost managed to eventually whittle the infamous icon down and forced him into his first true admittance of guilt over the incident.
A rather candid apology to the American public at the end of the interviews not only made for compelling television (drawing a ridiculously large number of viewers), but also managed to help dispel the American people’s disillusionment toward their government. Frost’s own career took a significant jump as he went from a foppish talk-show host to a major player in journalism.
Frost/Nixon, and Peter Morgan’s stage play upon which it was based, covers the time in which Frost managed to miraculously secure the interview, his subsequent preparations (with the help of two irate experts, desperate to push Nixon into a corner), and finally the interviews themselves. Ron Howard’s typically clinical style works here, as he presents the entire narrative interweaved with a series of documentary-style snippets that attempt to present both sides of the story through the testimonies of the secondary characters involved with the interview.
While many historical liberties have been taken, these particular liberties do prove to be highly compelling, and the bits and pieces of documentary help to ground what is essentially quite an exaggerated film.
The portrayal of Richard Nixon is sympathetic, to say the least, mostly due to an epic performance from Frank Langella, who certainly earned his Oscar nomination as he portrays a man secretly broken from his loss of power. While this may not reflect typical ideas of Richard Nixon, who has been completely skewered by history, it is interesting to see the vulnerable side of someone who has become such an archetypal villain.
As mentioned, Frank Langella is one of the film’s highlights, giving a truly three-dimensional portrayal of Nixon. One lingering close-up during the final interview manages to encapsulate Langella’s entire performance as Nixon, perfectly capturing the subtle vulnerabilities that will have the audience rooting for him despite such extreme arrogance and stubbornness.
Michael Sheen, who plays David Frost, manages to pull off the slightly effeminate and incredibly smarmy persona with ease, but is edged-out performance-wise by Langella, in part because his role is less dramatic. Still, his final interaction with Langella is wonderfully orchestrated, and could not have even been attempted with a lesser actor. The supporting cast, including several famous faces (Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell), all manage to keep up with the two leads, but of course as the title would imply, it’s Frost and Nixon who truly carry the film.
Oddly enough, however, every sequence between Frost and Nixon other than the final interview (albeit, there aren’t many of these moments) lacks the energy and punch of the interview sequences. The pace of the movie occasionally slows to a crawl at times, and takes a fair amount of time to get back up to speed. Frost’s love interest, played by Rebecca Hall, seems tacked on; not really providing the emotional back-up that a man in Frost’s situation would need.
However, despite the occasional lull, Frost/Nixon certainly earned many of its Oscar nods, thanks to a cast that seemed to truly care about the material, especially Langella, whose performance as Nixon is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.