During a potent time in our political history, films that focus on the scandal of political deceit and corruption are guaranteed to pop up in theaters and on DVD. In September, Oliver Stone released the somewhat flimsy yet bizarre semi-biopic “W.” which didn’t really have the oomph or the timeliness as it neither empathized nor abhorred President Bush (although it did feature a winning portrayal by Josh Brolin). A more direct film like “Frost/Nixon” is much more appropriate in a time as its subject matter makes us feel like history is repeating itself.
The impeachment of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, who won a Tony for the role on Broadway) and his subsequent downward spiral afterward is the story of “Frost/Nixon.” The nation felt betrayed, and the pride in our political system was in the toilet. Along comes David Frost (Michael Sheen), a British talk show host – and the last person anyone would ever think would restore American political interest. As the world watched – refreshed as Richard Nixon left the White House – David Frost saw his big break. Fired from a New York gig as a TV host, Frost was stuck in Australia interviewing the Bee Gees and offering gimmick rather than substance. Through several investors and donations from friends, Frost finally books Nixon. With the help of advisors Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and the fiery Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell), Frost gets ready for the interview of his lifetime.
However, he meets a formidable foe in Nixon. Langella is exquisite as Nixon, both portraying his every side of the infamous man from soft to hard to secretive to brazenly truthful and candid. During the interviews, Nixon becomes a performer – dodging near-embarrassing questions and painfully thwarting Frost’s efforts. Langella does this wonderfully by masterfully overpowering Sheen’s Frost, who is utterly unable to speak as his opponent walks all over him. However, when Frost finally finds Nixon’s weaknesses he finally takes control and doesn’t necessarily force an apology but rather gives Nixon the ability to confess and keep his self-credibility.
The film is fascinating from the first minute. Peter Morgan’s adapted script (from his own play) is pure dynamite, fully fleshing out characters who could just feel like caricatures. The actors have a lot to work with as Morgan is one of our best screenwriters (He also wrote “The Queen”). He does a terrific job intertwining humor and drama in his work and luckily for viewers he always does his homework.
Also doing their fare share of research are the perfectly cast actors. Langella has a lot of experience with the role and does an excellent job converting it to the screen. He doesn’t just throw on a Nixon voice and throw the peace signs up – he really helps us to sympathize. That might have been the problem with Stone’s “W.,” although liking Richard Nixon so long after his infamy is a bit easier than having compassion for our future ex-president.
Sheen is also impressive in his role (like Langella, he was in the original stage production). He has Frost’s mannerisms and voice down perfectly, but he injects a beautiful blend of charm and melancholy to produce a truly human character. Like his turn in “The Queen” two years ago, Sheen is a surprise treat but will likely be stuck behind the shadow of the tour-de-force that is Langella.
Another surprise is the painful performance by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s overly loyal chief-of-staff Jack Brennan. Brennan doesn’t want to see his boss and ultimately his friend embarrassed by a person with the reputation of David Frost and Bacon delivers near-perfect concealment of a man’s true fear.
It’s an actor’s film for sure, one of the best this year for thespians. The film is possibly the timeliest in terms of political comparison and director Ron Howard presents one of his most compelling films to date. The film is hard to evaluate as I’ve never seen the stage play, but as a film it hardly fails. Howard doesn’t use nostalgia tactics to evoke a stereotypical 1970s period piece. It’s obvious he was concerned mostly by the dynamic between the two major characters, which makes the film so persuasive. The ability to debate is often hard for people, and the chance to catch some of the best rhetoric ever spoken on screen is a delight. “Frost/Nixon” is a great achievement for all involved, especially Langella who (despite years in the business) is not a household name.