Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan, based on his play.
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
Michael Sheen as David Frost
Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr.
Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan
Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt
Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick
Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing
Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar
Rated R for some language.
"Frost/Nixon" is a film about history that ends up becoming so much more than a representation of the event. It takes these political and media figures, folks who are virtually unknown to the public on an intimate level, and turns them into sympathetic, multi-dimensional people. This is possible one of the best films that Ron Howard ever did, simply because it takes a real life story and does not put the standard Hollywood glitz attached to it. It's even the first film that I can recall of his that came out rather quietly, and in a rather small release at first. While stories of John Nash or Jim Braddock are massively entertaining, this film just seems somewhat more personal, and that could also be because of the masterful performance given by Frank Langella, and to a lesser extent, Michael Sheen, who showed his acting chops in "The Queen" before returning to "Underworld" next month.
Its the 70's, and Nixon has just resigned after the Watergate scandal that shocked the nation. His close cabinent member Jack Brennan is attempting to find some kind of way to keep Nixon positive in the public mind, while Nixon hopes that a book he writes will gain him some more favor. Meanwhile, news reporter David Frost comes up with the idea of doing a series of interviews with Nixon. The problem is that nobody will help produce it, as Frost's early success has turned him into a popular reporter, but one that doesn't often produce anything worthwhile. Him and his partner John Birt decide to finance the interviews out of their own pocket, and after much legal back and forth, Nixon and Frost sit down for their four interviews-of two hours each-that will ultimately lead to the confession that Nixon has been hiding from the American people for the last three years.
The first half of the film sets the stage for the conflict that is highlighted between the two men during the second. One can compare the meetings that the two men have with their closest advisors-Nixon to Jack Brennan, and Frost to John Birt. Nixon and Jack discuss ways to ensure that the interviews end up being incidental in the scope of history, while Frost and Birt find ways to probe deepers into their subject. They hire two investigators and "experts" on Nixon to join them-James Reston, Jr. and Bob Zelnick-played by Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt respectively. They want to stress the importance of turning the interviews into the trial that Nixon never got. And at the start, the first three interviews precisely, the interviews turn into the downfall of Frost's career and reputation.
Once the interview portion of the film starts, its easy to see how great these two actors really are. What progresses can be compared to a chess game, in the tradition of something like "Endgame." Nixon is easily somewhat jealous of Frost's popularity , not only through his career, but also his ability to gain younger women-in this case, Caroline Cushing, who David picks up on a plane and soon enough is living with him in New York. Seconds before the camera's go on, Nixon asks David if there was any fornication the night before, stunning David-a personal attack, and yet an obvious appearance of jealousy.
But it is during the fourth interview that the empathy comes out of these two characters. It begins with a drunken phone call that Nixon makes to Frost the night before the interview that he forgets the next day-the phone call that propels David to give it his all during the final two hours. And what comes next is a masterful bit by Langella, who can take this figure-who has been questioned and ridiculed for decades since it happened-and give him that sympathy and that perfect amount of sadness that is needed. Much like Josh Brolin in "W," these are two figures who clearly did not intend for everything to go as wrong as they did, and they most likely beat themselves up about it enough for the people to give them a bit of a break.
Considering the humor and outlandishness given by Nixon in the beginning, this unexpected dimension really was what Langella needed for this to be a great screen performane. Langella, who has not ever won or been nominated for any big reward has given two great performances in the span of a year, the other being "Starting Out in the Evening," which was somewhat ignored because of what a small film it was. But this will certainly be his first Oscar nomination-I am almost positive. Work by the other actors is fine as well-Michael Sheen is very good, but is outshone by Langella. And there is some great comedic work by Sam Rockwell (who is always good, even in the smallest of roles) and Oliver Platt, who should stress his comedy muscles more often, something I said after "The Ice Harvest" three year's back. There is even great small work by character actor Toby Jones, who oddly enough had another small, but memorable, part as Karl Rove in the aforementiond "W."
"Frost/Nixon" is an excellent historical character study, and a film that surprised me with the added dimension given to the figures. It's something I wish to explore in the future, to really discover the nuances and subtle touches given by both lead actors as they have this internal struggle as the interviews progress. My only quip is a a documentary style approach that Howard puts in, which I understand is a way to further enhance how the characters feel about each other and the events, but it just didn't work. It seemed more like a gimmick, and an un-needed way to pad the running time. A mild problem is an otherwise well acted, and well made film.