, 122 min, 2008
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan (screenplay), Peter Morgan (play)
Stars: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon
Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, a lesson in modern history, is a political thriller that draws us in, builds little by little, and finally absorbs us in its David and Goliath tale of two willful men locked in a struggle in which truth and justice will out.
David Frost (Michael Sheen of The Queen and Bright Young Things) is a once-failed British talk show host currently subjected to campy interviews and puff pieces in Australia. Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) was the 37th President of the United States, elected in 1968, who inherited and then escalated the already-in-progress Vietnam War and was subsequentally to take the brunt of blame for it; had a successful foreign policy, opening talks with Russia and China; and was finally impeached for his role in the Watergate burglary scandal which cost him his career, his reputation, and any scintilla of public life. Frost, intrigued by the potential for ratings, decides to approach the Nixon camp for a “no-holds-barred” interview in which he will be able to ask the “tough questions.” What he is interested in, at least at first, is good show business, and strong numbers.
Nixon, perpetually flanked by ex-Secret Service agent and sole confidante Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), brokers the deal through “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones), a literary agent working on selling Nixon’s memoirs when the germ of the idea for the interview series enters Frost’s consciousness. On the flight to California, Frost becomes anamored with Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona), a beautiful young British actress. As an outsider with no perspective on Nixon or the Watergate scandal and debacle in Vietnam, Frost attempts to gain the respect of his peers. Failing, however, to even raise the money for such an undertaking, Frost digs deep into his own pockets, borrows from friends, and starts filming with only about 30% of the money in place and many of the crew deferring fees on the promise of a finished product; Nixon was paid $200,000 up-front – notice how Frost attempts to overlook this upon their initial meeting.
In order to do their homework, Frost and his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) hire two investigators: the portly and wisecracking Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and the author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who seems to have inherited a major grudge against Nixon from his father. Reston is unconvinced of Frost’s dedication, seriousness and motives through much of the preparation for the interviews, and even through the first few sessions.
The film was directed by Ron Howard, who has had a spotty career at best up until now: his work ranges from the light (Splash, Parenthood) to the superb and dramatic (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), from so-so action epics (The Missing, The Da Vinci Code) to insipid attempts at comedy (EdTV, How the Grinch Stole Christmas); here, I believe Howard has made his best film.
Working from a screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen), adapted from his own stage play, Howard has crafted a political thriller to rival Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), imbuing the facts with drama and fascination, never succumbing to the mistake so many stage plays adapted for film are in danger of committing: a film that doesn’t shake its stage-based origins. Instead, Howard and Morgan have opened the play up, keeping it dialogue and character-driven, while cinematographer Salvatore Totino (who made his debut behind the cameras of Oliver Stone’s 1999 football epic Any Given Sunday) keeps the camera moving gracefully but not distractingly; the results are cinematically riveting. Hans Zimmer’s music is insinuating and dramatic, but never noticably omnipresent until the end. The cast is, of course, uniformly excellent.
The performances by the original stage actors Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are full-blooded, lived-in portrayals of these men; Langella in particular is sort of amazing, but doesn’t go for the demons-devoured, epic sweep of a life like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s great Nixon (1995), nor the focused claustrophobic intensity of Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s overlooked one man show Secret Honor (1984), but rather seems to embody all of the complexities and experiences of the man wearing down on him up to this point in history.
From these two performances, Howard and Morgan manage to craft a portrait of two men couched in the metaphoric terms of a proverbial “boxing match;” the David-and-Goliath-esque story of two “small” men from humble beginnings who rose to certain heights only to attempt with all their might to thwart their own downfalls. Nixon, in particular, gained and lost the most.
There is one moment in this film which might be the key to the whole finale: after a celebratory final talk with advisors and friends, Pat Nixon (Patty McCormack) gives a look and says, “I’m glad everything went according to plan.” Now notice the look on Nixon’s face, reacting seemingly to the way she says it, and I think you’ve got something. This leads to an imagined scene written by Morgan involving a late night phone call from the former President to David Frost, and we’re off to the races. Langella’s dialogue and acting in this scene alone is award-worthy.
In the film’s final third, with Frost newly reinvigorated by purpose, we gear up for an astonishing sight and the film doesn’t disappoint: these interviews were the opportunity Nixon saw to set the record straight and reclaim his once-good standing in the eye of the American people, but perhaps due to a deep-seeded need to confess his wrong-doing, perhaps due to something familiar he sees deep in Frost (they’re both afraid to admit failure and come from humble beginnings), perhaps due to being tired and worn out and sick of being kicked around, he gets as close to a confession as anyone is likely to ellicit, and it’s over.
Don’t think this is musty old history, however, for its connection to today is powerfully suggested. When Frost asks, “Are you saying that the President can do something illegal?,” Nixon barks back, “I’m saying when the President does it, it’s NOT illegal” – try not connecting that to the man that just left office. This film is thought-provoking, absorbing, riveting to watch and not without a scintilla of historical and current significance (to say the least); one of the year’s best films.