Kevin BaconSam RockwellMatthew MacfadyenFrank Langella
Medium: film
Year: 2008
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Keywords: Oscar-nominated
Country: USA, UK, France
Actor: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Andy Milder, Kate Jennings Grant, Gabriel Jarret, Jim Meskimen, Patty McCormack, Geoffrey Blake, Clint Howard
Format: 122 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 31 March 2009
Frost/Nixon is an adaptation by Peter Morgan of his own Tony Award-winning play that he took both to London and America. It even uses the same lead actors, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. You thus shouldn't be surprised to hear me say that it's very good indeed. The nearest thing I have to a criticism is a feeling that its story might have been better served by its original medium of live theatre, but that's entirely speculative since I never saw it.
To start with the good stuff, this is an intelligent adaptation that never forgets what medium it's working in. Theoretically the story it's telling should have been one of the stagiest of all time, yet the film never creaks or lets itself get bogged down in endless two-handed scenes. For example, the pace is so good that afterwards I couldn't believe it's over two hours long. Unfortunately my (tiny, nipicky) problem lies in the very skill of that adaptation. The Frost-Nixon interviews are obviously the story's raison d'etre and everything else is basically stuff around the edges. Now to be fair, those are some good-looking edges. I liked them. However I suspect the stage version would have been focused much more squarely on the central duo and that sounds tasty to me.
I'll give some background. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as the President of America, thus avoiding impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal of two years earlier and its subsequent cover-up. In the end he never stood trial, since his successor Gerald Ford gave him a full pardon for any crimes he might have committed in office. This didn't go down well with the general public, who also hadn't forgotten the small matter of Vietnam. However a few years later, a British chat show host called David Frost came along and managed to arrange some TV interviews with Nixon, to which Nixon's staff had agreed because they saw Frost as a lightweight who could be easily outwitted.
Nevertheless in the event, Nixon ended up saying quite a lot on these four ninety-minute programs, including the claim that, "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." Wow. I'd assumed Morgan must have invented that, but apparently not. If I haven't misread, even more crucially he said sorry. The film makes a strong case for this having been a key turning point both for America in general and for Nixon in particular, who in time recovered from all this to become something of an elder statesman.
Personally I hadn't known all that. Well, I'd known the general background, but I hadn't known many of the details. That's the background to this film, which is basically the story of those interviews. The first half is about the preparations and would seem to be fairly accurate. Ron Howard uses authentic locations (Nixon's house at San Clemente, Frost's original hotel suite) and Frost really was taking as big a financial risk as the film makes it look. However the second half with the interviews has obviously played fast and loose for the sake of drama, although fortunately the film isn't pretending otherwise. Check out the disclaimer in the end credits.
What's impressive about all this is that those last few paragraphs I've written are a bigger info-dump than you'll ever feel you're getting in the film itself. It does a great job of explaining everything without ever being seen doing so, if you know what I mean. It doesn't club you over the head with exposition. Instead you'll feel you've come to understand what was happening and why it was important. You'll believe that these TV interviews matter. Sometimes the film pretends to be a TV documentary, complete with talking heads. Sometimes it concentrates on Frost's political staff, who can cite chapter and verse on everything Nixon did and want to see him burn in Hell. However the film's strongest weapon is paradoxically David Frost himself, despite the fact that he's practically an ignoramus.
Damn, that man's weird. Martin Sheen's Frost is like some kind of Auton. He's a grinning show-off who preens and struts so much that he hardly even seems sentient. I half expected to see Jim Henson's hand up his arse. You'll hardly believe that such a man could exist, but all this seems in accordance with the contemporary opinions of Peter Cook, the Monty Python team, etc.
Put this man opposite Richard Nixon and you can only imagine one result. He's going to get flattened, isn't he? I was nervous as hell throughout the second half, since I could never be sure Frost wasn't about to screw it all up. When his aides try to talk shop, he's not even listening half the time. Instead he'll be chatting up girls or going to movie premieres.
Opposite him is Frank Langella, reprising his Tony Award-winning performance. Unusually for him, he didn't relax and joke around off-camera, but instead stayed in character and had the rest of the cast and crew referring to him as "Mr President". He didn't want to compromise the character. I'd known all that going in, but the result of it was for his performance to surprise me slightly. It's a less dominant role than you might expect. Langella's Nixon isn't powerful any more. That's the whole point. He's old, his glory days are behind him and most of the time he even manages to pretend he's not angry about it any more. Instead, he's a bit of a dodderer and even funny, thanks to his penny-pinching. Nevertheless when Langella wants to, he can surprise you with his power as a performer.
The key scene in the film is a complete invention from Peter Morgan, in which a drunk Nixon phones David Frost late at night and pours enough fire down the telephone to galvanise this British idiot into eventually kicking his arse. This is a creaky plot contrivance, but it's also probably necessary since otherwise our two antagonists would have hardly spoken a word to each other that wasn't on-camera. Needless to say, Langella does well with it.
I don't think I've mentioned the supporting cast yet. They're all strong, with Kevin Bacon being the most memorable as Nixon's chief aide. It's weird to see John Birt in what could vaguely be called a hero role, mind you. Matthew Macfadyen even looks the part, although that might just be the spectacles.
This film got a good amount of discussion when it came out and happily I agree with the buzz. Everyone was clearly taking it very seriously, with the 1970s being so faithfully represented for instance that your eyes will bleed. The suits! The hair! Admittedly David Frost was super-trendy, but even so. Yowzers. This is a film that's adapting an award-winning stage play and yet never letting anything let it forget which medium it's now working in. Admittedly it drifts off into Movie Logic Land with that late-night phone call and never quite makes it back, but then again it isn't trying to.