True life often makes for better drama than fiction. Had somebody written the story of Richard Nixon and his fall from the most powerful political office in the world, few may believe it. But the truth was an unbelievable web of lies and deception with the president becoming one of the most hated people in public life. Despite overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, Nixon refused to admit he broke the law. After President Geral Ford gave Nixon a free pass, TV presenter David Frost took it upon himself to give Nixon the trial he escaped. Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s new film shows us the events that led up to the now famous interview between Richard Nixon and David Frost.
It’s 1977. Three years have passed since Nixon resigned from the office of the President of the United States after the Watergate scandal. People are pissed that Nixon was given a pardon for any wrongdoings by Gerald Ford. David Frost is a television presenter looking for a challenge. He’s not a major player in television, presenting an Australian chat show after a failed attempt to break the US market. Frost sees an opportunity when he approaches the ex-president with a proposal to do a number of interviews. Nixon is interested in one thing only. Money. Frost wants to further his career. But no network wants to touch the interview. And those working with Frost want to put Nixon on trial. As the interview approaches, a number of factors threaten not only the production, but also the integrity of all involved.
Frost/Nixon is the filmed version of the play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella continue the roles they made their own on stage. And it’s pretty clear from the start that both actors are incredibly comfortable in the roles. The problem that can exist when an actor plays a real-life person is that the performance can focus on mannerisms and then become little more than a caricature of the person. But thankfully, that problem doesn’t exist here. Sure, both Sheen and Langella have the little quirks that make both Frost and Nixon such memorable characters. But once these little mannerisms are dealt with, the actors are able to concentrate on motivations and performance rather than imitation.
It doesn’t hurt that Sheen and Langella are joined by four great performances by Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Matthew MacFadyen. They play characters that are integral to the interview, but will never be recognised for it. While Sheen and in particular, Langella are the two actors given the most attention, the support they receive from these actors is vitally important. And none of the actors let anybody down.
There is in the film, a great emphasis placed on the power of television and the close-up. And in one pivotal moment, this is hammered home. Howard’s direction resists the need to be flashy or extravagant. After all, this is the adaptation of a play, and as such, doesn’t need to be anything more than a camera trained on actors. And for this reason, the film is successful. I will say however, that until the actual interview begins to unfold on screen, the film does tend to drag a little. A lot of emphasis is placed on how hard it is to get funding, and the problems that arise when people with different agendas clash. And in this section, I did find myself willing the film to get to the money shot, so to speak. However, once the actual interview arrives on screen, things get very very interesting.
Frost/Nixon is a very interesting look at an interview that has become a part of popular culture. It’s also a detailed examination of the power of television. The performances are rock solid, and Langella in particular is brilliant as Richard Nixon. He refrains from caricature and thus is very compelling to watch. Is it one of the best films of 2008? I don’t think so. But it is still a very solid film.