Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt. Rated R.
When British talk-show host David Frost first approached
Richard Nixon about participating in a series of televised interviews that
would touch on everything from the Vietnam War to Watergate, the disgraced
former president wasn’t the only one looking to rehabilitate his image.
In 1977, three years after resigning the presidency, Nixon
was not so much a forgotten man as a ghost, recoiling from the spotlight and
shadowed always by the humiliating scandal that had felled his
career. Frost, on the other hand, had simply been dismissed as irrelevant.
Living in Australia after a failed bid to sell himself in America, he was
willing to wager $600,000 of his own money that a Nixon interview – or, as he
regarded it, the trial that never was – would revive his fading star and
salvage his reputation for high-minded journalism.
Some, including members of Frost’s own camp, wondered if
their man was up to the challenge. Even more skeptical were Nixon and press agent
Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), who initially dismissed Frost (Michael Sheen, of The
Queen) as an attention-hungry pushover who
could be used for an easy payday. Nixon, always up for a good fight, relished
the idea of batting around a soft opponent, and in the early rounds he did just
If I’m making Frost/Nixon sound like a boxing match, that’s no accident. Directed by Ron Howard,
whose Cinderella Man chronicled
the improbable resurrection of Depression-era heavyweight Jim Braddock, the
showdown between Frost and America’s most infamous ex has all the trappings of
a title bout, from the tantalizing buildup to the electrifying main event.
Frank Langella, whose mimicry of Nixon’s mannerisms is
actually less impressive than his nuanced portrayal of the man’s tortured
psyche, deflects his interrogator’s questions with ease in the early going, and
though Langella, with his booming baritone and sternly authoritative presence,
dominates the film with a sublime performance, he gracefully yields the floor to
Sheen when Frost formulates an effective counterstrike to his subject’s
tactical interruptions and anecdotal evasions.
If Frost was no match for Nixon intellectually, he had
several weapons at his disposal – youthful charisma, which John F. Kennedy had
used to dispatch the then-vice president in the 1960 presidential debates, and
a staff anchored by rabid-dog researcher James Reston Jr. (the always inspired
Sam Rockwell), who armed his colleague with evidence that Nixon knew about the
Watergate cover-up even earlier than previously believed.
There is a hint of mutual understanding (bordering
precariously, one senses, on admiration) between Frost and Nixon, as much as
there is electric give-and-take between Langella and Sheen. Reprising the roles
they played first in London and later on Broadway – playwright Peter Morgan,
who wrote The Queen and The
Last King of Scotland, adapted his mostly
fact-based story for the screen – Langella and Sheen have been verbally
sparring for years now, and none of the tension or grudging warmth of their
exchanges has been lost over time.
Howard, a highly competent filmmaker if not a great one –
he has rarely shown a willingness or ability to embrace the darkness in his
movies, preferring to accentuate the sunny side – rarely gets in the way of his
actors or Morgan’s sharply written script, and Frost/Nixon is probably the better
For those with a lingering distaste for our late
president, whose crippling paranoia and glowering visage were captured so
brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins in the near-Shakespearean tragedy of Oliver
Stone’s 1995 Nixon – Langella’s
performance is more of an impression, though just as revealing – there’s a
natural temptation to root for Frost to goad his man into a groveling plea for
forgiveness. Yet though Nixon offers a reluctant mea culpa, perhaps giving his
host more of a made-for-TV watershed moment than he honestly expected, it feels
like something less than a seminal moment in American history.
As for Frost and Nixon themselves? The interview, which
could have been a double-edged sword for two men in serious need of a
major-league makeover, might ultimately be viewed as a small but significant
triumph for both.
For Frost, the rewards were massive ratings and a renewed
reputation for serious journalism. For Nixon, trapped in self-imposed exile at
his Southern California home, it proved the first step in a comeback that would
re-establish him as a formidable if flawed public figure.