I realize I’m aging myself here, but I was a teenager in the late 1970’s and as such I wasn’t paying too close attention to what was happening on the political scene at the time. I was much too caught up with the illicit thrill of cutting classes, shopping, and disco dancing. So when David Frost scored a major coup by interviewing former President Nixon, I didn’t bother to watch. Nixon as we all know resigned as President amid charges of corruption stemming from the Watergate scandal just in time to avoid an impending impeachment. Never mind that Nixon’s resignation was a momentous event in our country’s history. I didn’t really care. As I said, I was expending my energies elsewhere.
In Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard gives us one of the finest films of the year — the retelling of David Frost’s historic interview of Richard Nixon. Already nominated for numerous awards, including five Golden Globe nominations, make no mistake this film is headed for the Academy Awards — and hopefully an Oscar for Frank Langella.
Watching the broadcast of President Nixon’s resignation, popular British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) smells an opportunity — and ratings success. Ever the man with the big ideas, Frost goes to his incredulous producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), with the idea of interviewing Nixon. Birt isn’t the only one stupefied by Frost’s hubris. Journalists and pundits across the pond find the idea ludicrous as well. This is David Frost the entertainment talk show host whose biggest accomplishment thus far was to interview the Bee Gees. Their take is that Frost, a man without any political convictions one way or the other, and British to boot, lacks the credentials, the intellect, and the chops to conduct an incisive, hard hitting interview.
Frost is undeterred by the naysayers. In the face of too-little advertiser commitment, he raises the additional money himself. And, he manages to secure the participation of ABC television producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and writer/researcher James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). But Reston and Frost have different motivations behind and goals for the Nixon interview. For Frost, it’s about ratings, money, and personal success. For Reston, it’s the opportunity to put Nixon on trial for his actions. At this point Frost begins to grow a conscience and develop a sense of his responsibility to accomplish more than just career advancement.
Exiled to San Clemente and reduced to making the rounds of the “lecture” circuit — in this case, regaling disinterested orthodontists with presidential anecdotes — Nixon (Frank Langella) is only too willing to take up one of the many interview offers on the table. At the urging of superstar agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones), Nixon opts for the Frost offer, assured by Lazar that he’ll be tossed nothing but powder puff questions which he could easily handle. And of course, there’s the inducement of the hefty $500,000 fee. Nice pocket change for a crook. It turns out to be a decision Nixon will sorely regret.
Starting out its dramatic life as a theatrical play, the success of Frost/Nixon hinges on acting — dramatic conflict must come from performances that are fierce, focused, and combative, given that this interview is a showdown between two men with opposing goals — Frost’s, to expose Nixon and Nixon’s, to exonerate himself. I’m happy to report that the actors deliver the necessary high-caliber performances.
Michael Sheen, a favorite of mine for years has built an impressive career out of playing real-life men. First, as Robbie Ross, Oscar’s Wilde’s steadfast friend in Wilde; then onto former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen; and now as David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Sheen has that winning combination of true talent, abundant charm, and that matinee-idol smile that enables him to deliver a spot-on portrayal of the equally charming, real-life David Frost. He also travels well — he moves easily and believably from one time period to another, one lifestyle to another — from a gay man in Victorian England, to a flamboyant, playboy-type talk show host in the 70’s, to a Labour Party politician in the 1990’s. I hope to see more of him in American films.
But the real one to beat here is another long-time favorite of mine, the great — and underappreciated — Frank Langella. Langella has the same challenge before him as Sheen does — how to play convincingly a real-life person without lapsing into impersonation and caricature. It’s a difficult line to walk. It can be done well — I immediately think of Josh Brolin who, also like Sheen, has recently played a real-life person (George W. Bush in W. and Dan White in Milk). Brolin pulled it off. It can also be done badly, as evidenced by Thandie Newton’s embarrassingly bad performance as Condoleezza Rice in W..
Langella’s performance is in the former category. He somehow manages to transform himself physically into Nixon — vocally, facially, and in his awkward stance — and he does it without it looking like an act or pose and without sounding like Rich Little. Nixon just seems to be oozing out of Langella’s pores. The transformation isn’t just physical though, and it is here where Langella shines and brings his considerable acting prowess into play. In Langella’s hands, Nixon goes from being “Tricky Dick” the crook and the man everybody loved to hate into a sad and lonely pariah cast away from the life of public service he so loved. Langella gives us a flawed human being driven by personal demons, and one who abused his powers as President. Love him or hate him, Langella’s Nixon garners the empathy, and even sympathy, of the audience. And that’s quite a feat for an actor to pull off.
And so, Frost and Nixon square off; two men, opposites in every way. One is a popular, handsome charmer who can schmooze with the best of them and loves to live life. The other is a brooding conservative with a hangdog face — a man with a propensity to perspire and who suffers from terminal unlikeability and the inability to enjoy himself. We all know how the interview ends. Nonetheless, the suspense leading up to that crucial moment when Frost goads Nixon into confessing keeps us glued to our seats, all the while cheering for Frost and pitying Nixon.