By Scott Martin
Frost/Nixon, USA / UK / France, 2008
Directed by Ron Howard
By now, we’re all familiar with the story. Some of us have been fortunate enough to see the original interviews that inspired the Broadway play by Peter Morgan, which in turn served to inspire Ron Howard’s film, which plays itself out like a boxing match, so much so that Nixon is shown jogging in place in a track suit before the final interview. The underdog of the match is David Frost, a once famed but at that time practically defunct English talk show host, relegated to the kind of fare you might see on E! on a Saturday morning, in Australia. Richard Nixon, the man, was out of office and essentially hiding in his home in San Clemente at the time; Richard Nixon, the President, was no more – resigned, pardoned, and reviled by the majority of the American public.
I’ve always been a big fan of films that pit two intelligent men against one another. Roger Michell’s Changing Lanes (2002) is a personal favorite, as is Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven (2009), a terribly underseen film starring Liam Neeson. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) is worth a mention as well. You can’t technically call this a cat-and-mouse film, as there’s no physical chase, but the mentality of the film might suggest otherwise. Nixon is set up as a heavyweight taking down a featherweight, David Frost, for a $600,000 prize bag.
Frost (Michael Sheen) contacts Nixon’s people after witnessing his resignation on live television and puts his own money on the line for an interview. Nixon (Frank Langella, who was Oscar-nominated for his performance) isn’t immediately interested, but is drawn in by the simple fact of a paycheck. What the men don’t prepare for is how little support there is for the interview; ad executives refuse to back the program, and networks won’t carry it. Nixon assumes he’s going for a walk in the park on a beautiful day with Frost, but as the situation gets more dire, it becomes apparent to Frost and his team that they need to give the viewing public what they already know, and what they desperately need: a confession for Watergate, and an apology. Both men assemble their teams and prepare for what would ultimately become one of the most important news broadcasts of all time.
It’s unfortunate the amount of caricature Howard requires from his Richard Nixon, but at the same time, the way Langella performs Nixon, it’s easy to see where the caricature comes from. I recommend watching the film, then the actual interviews, and then the film for a second time. You can see the differences between the man and the character. The ideas are the same; Nixon is a talker, through and through, full of anecdotes and a great stonewaller of the hard questions. Throughout most of the film, Nixon is portrayed as a gigantic tree trunk of a man; he lumbers, mostly, through scenes and is sold as greedy. Much of this can be assumed, but as this is a fictionalized account of true events, much of this might be incorrect. Frost is the mouse, and Nixon is the cat. A note, though: remember Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (2009), and how the way Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is portrayed is how Julie Powell (Amy Adams) must consider her? Well, in a way, it might be that the audience is Julie and Nixon is Julia; he’s the way we remember him, and since the point of the film is about the televised conviction of the criminal, perhaps it should be portrayed that way.
There are interesting scenes about the kind of man that “Tricky Dick” really might have been: a jealous man, fevered with embarrassment, someone who thought, at the time, that he was truly doing the right thing. He makes remarks about the women Frost sleeps with, the parties he attends, and how lucky Frost must be to be able to do those things so readily. There’s a genuine sadness to the man. That’s completely thanks to Langella, and the way Howard directs the film. Roger Ebert noted that if the film were from Nixon’s point of view, we wouldn’t be able to care about Frost. I think it’s the other way around, kind of; if the film were from Nixon’s point of view, I’d find it hard to care about Nixon. A crucial scene in the film involves a drunken telephone call from Nixon to Frost in the middle of the night, the night before the Watergate section of their interview, the final day of shooting. Nixon comments on the struggles he faced as a child, and that surely Frost experienced the same things. He notes that the people who tormented them should choke on their successes. This is the only time in the film where I got the sense of a Nixon I read about in history books, and a true sense of David Frost as a person, rather than a character.
There’s a small supporting cast surrounding our two leads, each giving various and important bits of support to their designated fighter. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are two of Frost’s reporters, Matthew Macfadyen his producer, and Rebecca Hall is the woman he meets on a plane and with whom he ultimately falls in love. McFadyen, Platt, and Rockwell serve a great deal of comic relief without ever feeling undermined as important characters; when it comes down to it, they’re probably the reason that all of this went as well as it did. Hall doesn’t have much to do except support David, but she has a great deal of maternal instinct as an actress, so she does that well. Kevin Bacon plays for Nixon’s team, as his right-hand man and closest friend, Jack Brennan. He looks at Nixon like a father, a man to be truly revered not for his crimes, but for the reason he committed them.
Of course, this is an underdog’s tale, as well as being a thriller. The film slides through genres fairly easily; firstly, it’s a sly dark comedy about two men perfectly matched for a debate, who couldn’t be more different from each other, and from that it slides into a journalistic thriller, then back into a character study, but from a deeply dramatic point of view. It’s because of Howard’s direction that the film, through its several genres, never feels disrupted or hemmed. It’s a seamless adaptation of a brilliant and sharp play, based on perhaps the greatest and most surprising journalistic undertaking of the 1970s, or probably ever. There isn’t much music in the film, as most of the film’s message is about what meets the eye. The cinematography perfectly captures the feel of the room in which Nixon and Frost are sitting (resembling to a T the actual setting of the interviews), and most of the locations are true, including Nixon’s house in San Clemente, Frost’s hotel suite where the research took place, etc.
I’d be remiss to not mention what I consider to be the most important scene in the film, one that speaks volumes about the film’s intent and Langella’s performance. Rockwell, who plays one of Frost’s “crack investigators,” gives a monologue after the final taping that tells of his gripe with television, but how he learned to appreciate “the reductive power of the close-up.” He saw Nixon’s lonely and emotionally beaten face on one of the daily cameras and felt the conviction for which he longed because of that close-up, and perhaps it’s because Langella’s performance is meant to be a close-up of the idea of Nixon that he feels so reduced. Something to think about the next time you run across the film.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com