When Richard Nixon left the presidency, he was on the outs with America. By abusing his power and continuing an unpopular war, Nixon gravely injured the American people's faith in government. Sound familiar? It does seem convenient that Frost/Nixon, a film about interviewing an unpopular president, came out the very week that President Bush began his exit interviews. Although based on a play, the timing of the release makes the film a nice bit of wish fulfillment that Charlie Gibson, Brian Williams, or any of the others may do the same for us.
David Frost, as played by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen), is not the 1970s equivalent of our current newsmen. Hosting a low-grade show in Australia when not picking up women on airplanes, Frost seems more the 1970s Russell Brand. Yet despite his unlikely resume and complete lack of political convictions, he scores an interview with Nixon in 1977, three years after Nixon's resignation. With none of the networks biting, Frost has to raise money to put the interviews on air himself. Over the course of four lengthy interviews, Nixon uses Frost as a platform to reclaim his image. Until a final, incredible showdown in which Frost gets a reaction from Nixon that America had been waiting to hear.
I admit I'm at somewhat of a disadvantage reviewing the movie, having not seen the play or the original Frost/Nixon tapes. But as far as I can tell, Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) has done an excellent job adapting his own play. The writing is clever, witty, and quite funny throughout. With one exception, which I'll get to later, the movie does not show its theatrical roots too deeply. Documentary-style segments, in which characters comment on the events to the camera, do not jive tonally with the rest of the movie. But whenever the action unfolds, the dialogue is uniformly top-notch.
The acting is stellar throughout. Like in The Queen, Sheen has what at first seems a thankless part, underplaying against the flashier, awards-getting role. Yet he does a lot with a little, especially in reaction shots. In the final showdown, each close-up captures his surprise and excitement through his smallest movements. The transition to film has clearly helped him in creating a subtle yet powerful character. The supporting cast features many familiar character actors, including Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, and Rebecca Hall. They all move the story forward and have their moments, but keep the focus on the two leads.
But the actor you came to see is Frank Langella as Nixon. Langella won a Tony for the role, but the part should not work on film. Nixon speaks almost entirely in monologues and demands the kind of hammy performance that plays well in the balconies. Yet not only does Langella make the part work for film, but he dominates every second he is onscreen. Much like Josh Brolin in W, he does not go for a straight-up impression. Yes, the deep growl and the jowl-shaking are there. But in digging deeper, he makes all those surface tics seem effortless. His Nixon is a talkative, intelligent, and pathetic man who wants people to like him and is frustrated that they won't. With his racist remarks and underhanded insults, you won't want to give him a hug. But even more so than Brolin's George W. Bush, Langella creates enormous sympathy for this largely unsympathetic figure.
While the writing and acting is strong, I did question the approach Ron Howard took in directing. While the first two thirds of the movie are certainly enjoyable, they come across as rather light. Howard seems afraid to bore his audience with a political film, repeatedly relying on the script's humor and playing up sports metaphors. Not until the final showdown does the movie really have an impact. With a bright color palette and an intense but ever-present Hans Zimmer score, the mood is very much typical Hollywood. Which is a shame, because the story has the makings of a journalism classic like fellow Nixon film All the President's Men or, more recently, Good Night and Good Luck. Like both of those, Frost/Nixon shows a time when journalists made a difference by questioning the powerful. A darker tone and a more hard-hitting, 1970s approach could have made the film's impact all the stronger.
Of course, I'm essentially criticizing Howard for not making an entirely different movie. When judging him solely on the movie he did make, it's clear Frost/Nixon stands up there with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and (my personal favorite) Splash as one of his best. He makes the 2 hour, 2 minute running time zoom by. He digs deep into Frost and Nixon's characters by keeping the focus squarely on them. He also avoids the easy mistake of making the movie too theatrical. The one great exception is when Nixon calls Frost late at night to deliver a monologue. You can tell the writing is top-notch. You can tell Langella hits it out of the park. You can tell this scene would kill onstage. But it has zero impact onscreen. Not knowing how to dramatize the monologue, Howard makes some seriously bizarre shot choices, distancing Nixon and making me lose focus. It's the one blatantly theatrical moment of the film.
Howard makes up for it though by utilizing something theater can't do: the close-up. In the final interview, Frost and Nixon are seen almost entirely in close-up, registering every emotion and eye twitch they feel. This is an important advantage for film, as the power of the close-up is a key theme in the movie. In all of his close-ups, Howard puts his faith in his talented actors. He keeps the directing straightforward because the material is strong enough to work without additional flourishes. By letting the actors and script shine, Howard has created a highly entertaining, immensely interesting look at an important but largely forgotten historical event. He just didn't give the movie the added oomph to make it the classic it might have been.