Who would have thought in a year of epic hero/villain pairings, a British talk show host and a disgraced American president would have provided the most riveting. Last year, audiences were given such blockbuster battles as Batman vs The Joker, Iron Man vs Iron Monger, and to a lesser extent Mark Wahlberg vs Trees. However, the ultimate matchup arrived in Ron Howard’s interview-to-the-death saga Frost/Nixon.
Richard Nixon (Langella), having resigned from the Presidency following the Watergate affair, resides in exile on the coast of Southern California. His mind is still sharp as a tack, although his people skills leave a lot to be desired. He wants nothing more than to be a statesman like his predecessors; have his opinion respected, and be able to influence those who are making the big decisions. Instead, he can only host expensive dinners in which he relates tired anecdotes to a crowd only interested in his scandals. “I specifically said I didn’t want to take any questions on Watergate!” he screams at his loyal aide, as if people would be interested in anything else.
Talk show host David Frost (Sheen) is a warm and jovial playboy in an exile of his own: Australian television. His program in the US was axed, and his British show is flailing. No longer content with interviewing Evonne Goolagong, he decides to go for broke and get an interview with Richard Nixon. The audience that watched him leave office was enormous. Imagine an intimate discussion with America’s most controversial politician.
Nixon sees an opportunity to rebuild his reputation in an interview with Frost, who is believed to be a conversational lightweight compared to Tricky Dick. The $600,000 cheque also helps. None of the American television stations are willing to fund Frost’s venture, and eventually, the Brit is in it for $6 million of his own money. If he is going to sell the tapes of these interviews, he is going to need something special from Nixon – namely, an admission of guilt. He hires two American investigators desperate to give Nixon the trial he never had.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan has adapted his play of the same name, with Sheen and Langella reprising their stage roles. Much like Morgan’s screenplay for The Queen, Frost/Nixon manages to be explosive in the simplest of ways – a late night phone call between our two adversaries will have you clutching the armrest. Words fly like barbs during the interviews; the tension is palpable, the frustration unbearable. Two men sit down and talk about politics, and it’s like watching a genuine sword fight. On more than one occasion you’ll notice you’ve been holding your breath.
Langella’s performance as Nixon is amazing to watch. He plays it big (like any theatre actor would), and at first it feels false. But as the film goes on, Langella disappears and you only see Nixon in his place, jowls and all. Michael Sheen is also great as Frost, a man who has more in common with Nixon than he (let alone anyone) would like to admit. The supporting cast are also brilliant. Kevin Bacon gives possibly his greatest ever performance as Nixon’s protective aide Jack Brennan. Sam Rockwell is electric as Nixon expert James Reston Jr. His belief in democracy is falling to pieces, and if Nixon would just apologise than maybe, just maybe, America and her political system could be trusted again. Sadly, even he knows that it will take more than that.
I haven’t even credited Ron Howard yet, who after a career of directing entertaining films, has finally made his first great one. He takes a backseat to the actors this time around, adopting a verité style that compliments both the historical aspects, as well as the theatrical. But hey, let’s not get to technical – he made a series of interviews incredibly entertaining. Nothing else really needs to be said.
Frost/Nixon couldn’t be timelier. Released when America farewelled one of their worst president’s ever, it’s interesting to look back at the precise moment in time in which the wheels of American democracy began to fall off. If the Kennedy assassination was the end of America’s innocence, then Watergate was the beginning of their teenage cynicism. Could they ever bring themselves to trust another president? Could someone in office abuse their nation’s trust again? And would an apology ever be enough to mend a broken nation? Frost/Nixon doesn’t answer these questions, seeing as those answers just don’t exist. But I’ll be damned if this movie didn’t come close.