November 2022

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon - Plugged In

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones


For the latest entry on an eclectic filmography, Ron Howard has teamed up with playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan for this film adaptation of Morgan’s own play, a semi-fictionalized docudrama chronicling the 1977 interview pitting British talk-show host David Frost against former President Richard Nixon. To this end, they have managed the impressive accomplishment of turning what could have been a dry, stuffy subject into a powerful and compelling drama and character study, proving that slick cinematic craftsmanship, an intelligent script, and powerhouse acting can take something seemingly mundane—an interview—and make it intensely riveting.

When disgraced American President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) is implicated in the Watergate scandal in 1972 and eventually resigns to avoid near-certain impeachment in 1974, young British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) smells a juicy interview subject to rejuvenate his floundering career. But achieving his ambition of getting Nixon to sit down for an interview is easier said than done. Unable to sell the interview to American television networks, Frost gambles his own money to offer Nixon $600,000 and goes in without a ready buyer, placing Frost in a precarious financial situation. Additionally, the idea of a talk-show host conducting such a “serious” interview is met with dismissal. Even after Frost finds a few allies—his friend and producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), ABC Bureau Chief Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author and Watergate researcher James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell)—they are not without their doubts about both Frost’s motives and his preparedness, with only his girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) unwaveringly by his side. Eventually, the interview finally begins at Nixon’s California villa under the watchful eye of his protective chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and divided into four segments: domestic policy, foreign policy, “Nixon the man”, and, inevitably, Watergate. Frost gets off to a rocky start that seems to prove his doubters right, coming off as an in-over-his-head lightweight unable to get anything new or substantial out of the wily, cagey ex-president. But in the interview, as in his presidency, Watergate would again prove Nixon’s undoing.

When it comes to historical accuracy, Frost/Nixon follows the historical record fairly accurately but unsurprisingly takes a little license to make things more dramatic and cinematic. The bulk of the second half of the film’s two hour runtime consists of recreations of material from the interviews, albeit sometimes tweaked or edited (the argument that leads to Nixon’s eyebrow-raising declaration that “when the President does it, that means it is not illegal” is made more dramatic onscreen than it was in real life). Obviously since the real interviews ran over six hours (with much more unused extra footage), the filmmakers have confined themselves to including the best-known and/or most dramatic segments. The filmmakers also invented one fictional scene, a drunken late-night phone call between Frost and Nixon. It’s a worthwhile invention; while the specific scene never happened, it sheds some illuminating light into both men as Nixon launches into a passionate outpouring in which he reveals more about himself than at any other point in the movie in the way he relates himself to Frost as both men from humble backgrounds who had to claw their way to the top only to get knocked back down, and bitterly vents the large chip on his shoulder and his inferiority complex about the ways, real or perceived, in which he feels both he and Frost are always seen as low-born losers and imposters by the elites whose acceptance they crave but never truly receive. Nixon regards Frost with a certain sympathy, seeing them as kindred spirits of sorts, and envies his charm, his gregarious personality, and his way with people and with women, all traits Nixon lacks (in their first informal meeting before the interview, Nixon is a little too interested in Frost’s girlfriend Caroline). It’s a strange sort of pseudo-bonding between the two men, as both acknowledge they seek to use the interview as their way back into the limelight that slipped through their fingers, yet at the same time acknowledge that only one of them can win their battle. Ironically, it’s Nixon’s monologue that spurs Frost into his intense preparation for their final showdown. The complex and multifaceted dynamic and both the rivalry and pseudo-friendship between Frost and Nixon is expressed most clearly in this scene.

The movie also spends a sizable amount of set-up establishing the ways in which David Frost was an unlikely pick for a hard-hitting interview of a former President. Frost is known as a shallow talk-show host chasing fame and ratings; he’d had a hotshot early career in Britain, but by the time we meet him in the movie, his once-popular US-based show has been canceled and he’s a borderline has-been in glorified exile in Australia. He doesn’t care about politics and only wants to interview Nixon because he smells a juicy story that can help him make a name for himself (again). This isn’t good enough for some of his few allies, most prominently the impassioned, crusading Reston, who wants to nail Nixon to the wall and give him the trial via interview that he never had to face in reality, and isn’t convinced that Frost is the man for the job. And in fact it is Frost’s image and reputation that persuades Nixon (encouraged by his right-hand man Brennan) to take him on as well; Nixon and Brennan see a lightweight pushover out of his depth who will toss softball questions, whom Nixon can dominate and steer the interviews in directions favorable to himself. For a while, Nixon is right, but the same arrogance that was his downfall in the Watergate scandal will eventually get him in trouble again when the subject comes up in the final interview section.

While we spend a lengthy amount of set-up time (almost an hour of the two hour runtime) showing the preparations and buildup to the interview, the lengthy one-on-one interview sessions between Frost and Nixon are expectedly the centerpiece of the film, and the verbal duel of wits and wills between the slick but out-of-his-comfort-zone talk-show host and the older experienced politician resembles both a dance and a boxing match (the latter a comparison explicitly made by Brennan). Frost tries to catch Nixon off-guard by ambushing him with an off-the-cuff question about the infamous Nixon Tapes at an unexpected moment, but after being briefly unpleasantly surprised, Nixon smoothly deflects (and takes over the conversation) by seguing into an interminably lengthy and in-depth explanation of the taping system and its backstory. Time and again, Frost tries to smoothly reclaim his footing with his next question, only to have Nixon counter with deflections and use up valuable and limited time with long-winded personal anecdotes (he sucks up twenty minutes of a two hour segment in a deliberately rambling response to a single question), smoothly parrying any thrust Frost tries to make. To both onlooking teams—Frost’s dismayed few allies and Nixon’s smugly confident staff—Frost looks ineffectual and out of his league, unable to pry anything new or revealing out of his subject. But Nixon’s early upper hand feeds his growing self-confidence, while Frost’s desperation—and ironically a late night soul-baring phone call from Nixon himself—spurs him into knuckling down and taking matters more seriously. Ultimately, in the interview as in his presidency, Nixon is brought down in almost Shakespearean fashion by the fatal flaw of hubris.

As is essential for a drama whose power comes from something as seemingly mundane as people sitting across from each other talking, and the interpersonal dynamics of the characters, the entire cast give sterling performances, with the original stars of both the London and Broadway runs of the play, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, reprising their roles onscreen. Sheen, probably best-known for previously playing Tony Blair in The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), plays Frost as a shallow dilettante, a frivolous playboy who’s disinterested in politics and chases the spotlight, covering his desperation behind an abundance of superficial charm and a sunny grin. It’s expressly remarked upon by one character that he possesses no real skills or talents besides a feckless charm and a way with women, and does not inspire confidence among his more serious-minded allies when he blows off their research brainstorming sessions and spends the last night before the interview scurrying off to attend a glitzy movie premiere (Nixon, by contrast, spends all night preparing in strategy sessions with his advisers). Nonetheless, much like Frost himself, Sheen possesses enough boyish plucky charms to get us to like a shallow character, and the narrative wisely has us spend enough time with Frost leading up to the interview that we’re compelled to root for him anyway, which pays off when he becomes the David butting heads with Nixon’s Goliath.

But while Sheen is solid, few would dispute that the juicy plum role goes to Frank Langella, who gets the trickier task of embodying one of the most (in)famous and controversial political and historical figures of recent history whose face, voice, and mannerisms are almost universally-known. Langella and the filmmakers don’t bother with makeup besides styling his hair a certain way; he doesn’t look much like Richard Nixon, and sounds like him in only a loose general sense, but he succeeds where it’s more important by bringing him to life as a three-dimensional, multi-faceted human being. Langella’s Nixon is neither a caricature nor a one-note “villain”, but a formidable presence and a crafty interview opponent (one can get a sense of why he was nicknamed “Tricky Dick”) whose seemingly amiable, folksy demeanor belies a shrewd intelligence that is not to be underestimated. Langella’s Nixon, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly sympathetic figure; he is arrogant, self-justifying, manipulative, and, it is implied, racist (he scoffs in disapproval upon learning that Frost once almost married African-American singer Diahann Carroll), but Langella avoids the easy, lazy route of demonizing him. Langella brings out various facets of Nixon’s complex and contradictory personality; his inferiority complex and the bitter chip on his shoulder, an occasional flare of explosive rage where he spews profane venom in an impassioned outpouring, and hints of a haunted core and, perhaps, a guilty conscience which might on some subconscious level have spurred him to sit down with Frost in the first place. We get the creeping suspicion that, as defiant and self-justifying as he is, on some level Nixon, like the criminal who wants to get caught, almost wants to get cornered into a confession.

While this ultimately comes down to the one-on-one verbal duel of wits and wills between Frost and Nixon and thus between Sheen and Langella, our two leads are backed up by a uniformly strong supporting cast, especially Sam Rockwell as the crusading Reston, brimming with righteous indignation against an ex-president he feels got unjustly let off the hook, and Kevin Bacon providing a stark contrast as Nixon’s stern, fiercely protective chief of staff and right-hand man Brennan. Oliver Platt, mostly playing it straight apart from an amusing bit of low-key comedy where he does his best Nixon impression while “playing” him during interview rehearsals, and Matthew Macfadyen as Frost’s trusty friend Birt, are equally fine in lower-key roles. Even Toby Jones as Nixon’s Hollywood literary agent Swifty Lazar, who only appears in a few early scenes, is a distinct individual. Rebecca Hall provides the lone significant female role as Frost’s supportive girlfriend Caroline. As usual in Ron Howard movies, his brother Clint and father Rance have small roles.

Filming locations included Nixon’s real San Clemente home and the hotel suite used by Frost, and period details are convincing, with snippets of Watergate-era news reports by Walter Cronkite and others enhancing the sense of verisimilitude. For the millions watching the interviews unfold on television, the crowning moment came when Frost prodded Nixon into admitting being involved in a coverup and apologizing to the American people. For those convinced of Nixon’s guilt, it was a moment of vindication. For Frost, it resurrected a floundering career and ensured he enjoyed a long and prosperous career as a respected media figure and a celebrity socialite. Even for Nixon, the movie implies, it perhaps allowed him to let go of a little of the weight of an underlying guilty conscience. The movie begins with a fascinating look behind-the-scenes of the TV business, and turns into a spellbinding drama that makes a climactic verbal duel between two men sitting in a room in front of the cameras as riveting as a boxing match in a sports movie. Such is the result when a sharp script, impeccable cinematic craftsmanship, and compellingly intense performances all combine into a forceful and powerful film.

* * * 1/2