Jan 28 2009
In recovery mode on Sunday afternoon, we decided to go to the cinema to see Frost/Nixon. In truth, I didn’t know much about the story prior to seeing it and I had only ever seen short clips of the interview between Sir David Frost and former US President Richard Nixon, upon which the film is based. I was wide eyed and open to the film. But I had not expected to be bowled over by it – from the opening scenes, I was gripped. Ron Howard, in his first great film since Apollo 13 in 1995, lets the story play out like Rocky without the boxing ring.
In one corner, we have David Frost, trying to salvage what’s left of his flagging career, while in the other corner we see Nixon believing that this interview is an opportunity to get the American people back on side.
Michael Sheen, who in previous roles has imitated both Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams, manages to capture Frost’s mannerisms and, in particular, his vocal inflections while avoiding parody (this is where I felt he fell down in his portrayal of Blair).
Frank Langella‘s Nixon is careful, calculating and unnerving, clearly enjoying how uncomfortable he makes his sparring partner. To unhinge Frost, Nixon throws inappropriate questions (Did you fornicate last night?) and off-the-cuff comments at him and for the most part his ploy works. I believe Langella has secured himself an Oscar for Best Actor for this role, where he does more than simply imitate Nixon, he embodies the man. From very early in the film I ceased to see Langella on screen, but instead was immersed in what Nixon would do and say next. In possibly the pivotal part of the film, the camera lingers on Nixon’s face and Langella, without saying a word, speaks volumes with his weatherbeaten features, desperate expression and lost, defeated eyes – a scene that will become a classic.
Matthew MacFadyen as John Birt, stuck in the impossible position of Frost’s producer, Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick and Kevin Bacon, as Nixon’s aide, Jack Brennan, offer strong support, but its Sam Rockwell, as James Reston Jr., author and expert on Nixon and the Watergate controversy, who shines, not allowing us to forget for a single second how badly Nixon let down the American people.
Frost/Nixon is as much about television and its part in modern politics as it is about the infamous interview. Howard examines the role of pop journalism in shaping political views and this is perhaps the thing that lifts the movie out of the trap of being a wordy stage play, but instead produces a layered drama with plenty to bring the viewer back for a second sitting.
Although we know exactly how it will end, the build up to the final interview is actually exciting, the tension produced between the desperation of both men is unrelenting and as the credits role you may even feel a twinge of sympathy or the fallen President.
The negatives? Well, strangely, I only found negatives when I went about researching this post. It seems the story is a somewhat polished version of the truth. Stripped from the script is any mention of Nixon’s 20% stake in any profits from the interviews (surely a great incentive for him to have a dramatic revelation in the final parts of the interview). Indeed the historical, political and social impacts of the revelations are heavily overplayed in the film.
However, Howard is not making a documentary here and as an exciting piece of fiction, as a dramatic interplay between two great forces, this film is one of the finest ‘Based on a True Story’ films I have ever seen. I am reminded of Shattered Glass, Serpico and Quizshow as films that dramatise real events without dehumanising the characters. Frost/Nixon can sit proudly amongst these.