Laura CliffordIn 1977, it is nearly three years since President Gerald Ford pardoned ex-president Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella), now recovering from another bout with phlebitis. On the other side of the world, British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) is struggling to keep his career moving forward. A fortuitous TV broadcast about the former president catches Frost’s eye and the germ of an idea is born. Why not put together a series of interviews with Nixon to discuss his foreign policy as chief executive, domestic policy, his life and, most controversial of all, Watergate? These historic Q&A interviews are chronicled in “Frost/Nixon.”
Director Ron Howard is no stranger to making first-rate bio-picks. Just think about “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Cinderella Man” and you get what I mean. This time he tackles playwright Peter Morgan’s stage work (Morgan also adapted the “Frost/Nixon” screenplay) and brings it, vividly and expertly, to he big screen.
The story begins with Frost developing the germ of the idea that could rejuvenate his career. He and his producer John Birt (Matthew Madfayden) approach Nixon publicist Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) and make an offer that cannot be refused: $600000 for four two-hour interview sessions between Frost and the ex-president. The TV host’s plan is to ask hard-hitting questions to get the truth about Richard Nixon and prove himself as a worthy, credible journalist.
As the interview sessions begin, Frost quickly realizes that Nixon is manipulating the questioning, giving long rambling reminiscences that deftly dodge any admissions of regret or guilt for things like Vietnam and his “secret plan” to end that war. If David Frost cannot get Nixon to tell the facts about the Watergate cover-up in the last interview, there is a good chance he will be bankrupt.
The story, as one would expect, centers on the interviews, their preparation and the aftermath. It fleshes out with background details to give the viewer the sense of what drove David Frost to attempt such a risky journalistic venture. Michael Sheen does a terrific job in building his subject’s persona, making frost a person, not just a TV personality. Even better is Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. The actor, though looking nothing like the ex-president, is coifed with the defunct president's signature wavy hair but there is much more to his performance than hairdressing. Langella captures Nixon’s speech, mannerisms, walk and body language that are so memorable of the man during those turbulent times.
The supporting characters are very well cast with Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Frost’s investigators Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr., Madfayden as John Birt and Toby Jones’s Swifty. Lovely Rebecca Hall plays Frost’s companion Caroline Cushing, an apparently fictional character that lends nothing to the film except as stylish, sexy window dressing. Former child star Patty McCormack (“The Bad Seed” 1956) gives a touching performance as Nixon’s loyal wife Pat.
Techs are superb with excellent attention to the details of shooting a television interview in the mid-1970s. The bulky cameras, hot spotlights and recording equipment that fill the interview space lend the film a genuine feel of the time. Frequent Howard director of photography Salvatore Totino uses close up lensing of the principal characters to excellent effect. The rest of the behind the camera work is up to par, too, with production design (Michael Corenblith), score (Hans Zimmer), costume (Daniel Orlandi) et al giving fine craftwork.
Awards season draws near but there have been, thus far, many major films that I consider worthy. “Frost/Nixon” is one of the few. I give it an A-.
On the day Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, "Starting Out in the Evening") left his White House, a British celebrity talk show host, David Frost (Michael Sheen, "The Queen"), watched live from half a world away in Australia. A germ of an idea began to form, and three years later the performer known for his puff pieces went up against the thirty-seventh President of the United States to get the American people what they still wanted - a confession - in a series of television interviews in screenwriter Peter Morgan's ("The Queen") adaptation of his own stage play, "Frost/Nixon."
Director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code") pulls from the pugilistic experience of "Cinderella Man" and restages Morgan's play as a boxing match between two unlikely and opposite contenders. Opening up the action to include Sydney, Heathrow and Nixon's actual Western White House, Casa Pacifica, "Frost/Nixon" illustrates how the deal came to be, its financing, the two men and their teams strategizing the fight, culminating with a bout broken into four segments. All that's missing is Don King and the ring girls.
For those of us who remember seeing these interviews, it is surprising to remember just how much of a lightweight Frost was considered at the time, a jet setting playboy who is told he and Vidal Sassoon define their generation. Frost first broaches his idea to his British producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen, "Pride & Prejudice"), and begins to deal with Nixon's camp via uber agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones, "Infamous," "City of Ember"), who assures his client a soft interview and big payday (Frost eventually paid Nixon one million for the interview, putting much of his own wealth, along with his journalistic credibility, on the line). Frost has trouble getting people to take him seriously - even his own team, which grew to include former NPR bureau chief Bob Zelnick as executive editor (Oliver Platt, "Kinsey," "Casanova") and Watergate historian James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell, "Choke"), were unsure whether Frost was up to the task. Meanwhile Nixon, goaded on by his Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon, "Where the Truth Lies," "Death Sentence"), believes his legacy as a statesman can still be elevated above Watergate and that the Washington snobs and elitists he believes looked down on him can be proven wrong. The disgraced president is also not averse to the payday, even if he is frustrated telling anecdotes on the speaking circuit.
The deal, if not the financing or the television network, in place, Frost jets out to meet Nixon, picking up long term girlfriend, Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall, "Vicky Christina Barcelona"), during the flight. They meet the same Nixon we saw speaking to a dentists' convention, the one of the name-dropping anecdote who doesn't seem to realize the irony when he tells his guests the reason he'd never want to be a Russian leader is because his phone would always be tapped. For his part, Nixon is fascinated by Frost's Italian loafers, but on conferring with Brennan, is nudged to conclude that shoes without laces are effeminate. (The shoes, which get brought up again, are a nice symbol for what Nixon desires that comes so naturally to Frost.) When Nixon asks what Frost hopes to get from the interviews, which they have agreed will be aired in four parts with only the fourth addressing Watergate, Frost uses an Agnew inspired alliteration replying 'a cascade of candor.' Lazar makes sure he gets a check from Frost before they part.
The two camps prepare their fighters, although Howard concentrates on the underdog's preparation. Reston wants to spend a week following up on a hunch he has about a meeting Nixon had with Colson, but Frost can't afford it. Zelnick and Reston are aghast when Birt tells them Frost is 'a performer of the highest calibre.' When the bout begins, Birt is clearly Frost's corner guy, Brennan playing Nixon's. Frost tries to score the first punch with a surprise question - 'Why didn't you just destroy the tapes?' - but Nixon dances around it like Muhammad Ali. Brennan complains that the other side isn't sticking to their agreement to compartmentalize the interview, with Watergate strictly relegated to the fourth and final interview. The bell rings, round one has gone to Nixon. He leaves the Republican home where the taping is taking place smiling and waving to the media and onlookers.
Nixon proceeds to do well, unsettling Frost before the next taping by asking whether he did any fornicating over the weekend (true story!), but Frost starts showing more aggression in his interviewing technique. But Frost keeps getting sandbagged outside the ring. His Australian show is dropped and sponsors continue to be problematic. But the night before the last taping a dramatic phone call from an inebriated Nixon to an astonished Frost gives Frost the edge the next day and perhaps no one is more surprised than Nixon himself when he throws in the towel. The Frost/Nixon interviews go on to become the most highly rated news program ever.
In addition to the battle itself, "Frost/Nixon" also addresses the impact of television on political events. Nixon always keeps a handkerchief at hand to mop his infamously sweaty brow off camera and tells Frost that people who heard his debate against Kennedy on the radio thought he'd won. The image Frost has created on TV is a roadblock, furthered when his team see him on the news at a Hollywood event the night before a taping. One would have thought the concept of the media reporting on the media was a relatively recent phenomenon, but here we see it happening three decades ago, as news reporters swarm around the house where the interviews are being taped.
Frank Langella has already won the Tony for playing this role on Broadway and he makes the transition to the big screen and its closeups beautifully (the actor was projected onto a big screen even in the stage version). Langella doesn't look like Nixon, but with some waves of the hair, a lowering of his vocal timbre and a head held both forward and hunched, Langella gets the essence of the man. He's intelligent and vindictive, bitter yet eager to be loved or even liked and full of rationalization and uncertainty. It's a brilliant performance and a top Oscar contender. Sheen is also good, but he is less able to overcome his difference in appearance to Frost. Frost had a long face and slightly hooded eyes whereas Sheen, with his heart-shaped face often comes across with a deer-in-the-headlights look. It's a good performance, but doesn't elevate us beyond the actor playing it like Langella's does. Macfadyen is terrific as Birt, the calming influence for his colleagues who is anything but himself and Hall makes a second strong impression as the sophisticated socialite who fell for Frost when he might have lost all. Platt is a terrific stand-in for the audience as he wonders what he got himself into when the circus starts up while Rockwell represents the public's lust for Nixon's blood. Bacon is serious as death as Nixon's loyal chief. Toby Jones is a hoot as Lazar.
Howard's production is evocative of its time without hitting us over the head with 70's nostalgia. Careful attention has been paid to recreate the interview set and it has been beautifully lit by cinematographer Salvatore Totino ("Cinderella Man"). Hans Zimmer's ("The Dark Knight") score does the job, but rather generically.
"Frost/Nixon" is a fascinating pas de deux, psychological study and snapshot of the era when the news and entertainment media began to merge. See it most of all for Frank
Langella's career best.
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