For three years after being forced from office, Nixon remained silent. But in summer 1977, the steely, cunning former commander-in-chief agreed to sit for one all-inclusive interview to confront the questions of his time in office and the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. Nixon surprised everyone in selecting Frost as his televised confessor, intending to easily outfox the breezy British showman and secure a place in the hearts and minds of Americans. Likewise, Frost’s team harbored doubts about their boss’ ability to hold his own. But as cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits resulted. Would Nixon evade questions of his role in one of the nation’s greatest disgraces? Or would Frost confound critics and bravely demand accountability from the man who’d built a career out of stonewalling? Over the course of their encounter, each man would reveal his own insecurities, ego and reserves of dignity — ultimately setting aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth. Frost/Nixon not only re-creates the on-air interview, but the weeks of around-the-world, behind-the-scenes maneuvering between the two men and their camps as negotiations were struck, deals were made and secrets revealed… all leading to the moment when they would sit facing one another in the court of public opinion.
Genres: Drama, Adaptation and Politics; Running Time: 2 hrs. 2 min.; Release Date: December 5th, 2008 (limited); MPAA Rating: R for some language.
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Matthew MacFadyen
Directed by: Ron Howard
A posting a couple of weeks ago by a friend on Facebook reminded me that I had failed to write a review of the movie Frost/Nixon which Lay and I watched as an Amazon download nearly a month ago.
Kudos to Peter Morgan for his skill as a writer and Ron Howard’s ability to take a story based on real events and a widely known outcome. Howard has created a compelling “what will happen” drama (as he did with Apollo 13) that succeeds as a film.
This is a film based on a play that neither felt trapped in staginess nor weakly expanded with just the stage dialogue delivered exactly but in a variety of locales. Morgan gets a lot of credit here. What is so impressive about Morgan’s work is that in adapting his own play he didn’t try to force his already successful stage-play onto a film director – he has wholly reworked it from beginning to end and yet retained all the gravity and drama that the play elicited. If you saw the play everything key is here and yet you can feel the difference – the pacing is changed, the power achieved in different ways. The staging capabilities of a Hollywood production enables Howard to gussy up this event with such accoutrements as the luxury suite of a 747, Nixon’s seaside villa at San Clemente, and the impressive, downright menacing sight of a presidential motorcade. As the train of glittering, dark limos approach the Nixon friend’s house where the interviews were shot it feels like a battalion of tanks.
For this Howard also deserves credit. To have filmed the play as it was would have been disastrous on film – one long two-hander scene after another, duelling narrators. Howard knows when we need quick cuts, when a long drawn out piece that worked on stage needs to be reduced to a couple of lines and a post-scene reaction, and when he needs to hold with a scene and let it play between the two leads. This happens in several impressive moments in the latter half of the film.
For some this might constitute the films biggest flaw however. Morgan and Howard can’t escape the fact that in the final stages of the film it is the head-to-head scenes of Frost and Nixon that are key and they must stay with them more. This is necessary, but it sadly means that the supporting players, so well established and broadened out to expand the scope in the first half, fall be the wayside. A superb Toby Jones as Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar, Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt and always reliable Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick all but disappear and only Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell play any significant role beyond the two leads in the final stages. This is a shame.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are superb, as they were on stage, and Langella will take a lot of beating for the Oscar this year. There are many moments here when I was so involved I forgot I wasn’t watching the real Nixon. It’s not that he looks that like Nixon but he is so real you believe it completely and have to remind yourself you’re watching an actor. Frank Langella morphrd more successfully into Nixon than his physicality would otherwise permit. Michael Sheen as Frost already seems to look and sound like his character, and the blue blazer outfits add the final touch. Langella’s performance on camera brims of with melancholy, aggression, and self-pity; Michael Sheen’s as frost glitters with a muted, hysterical cheer mixing childishness and fear.
Platt is reliably Platt. Bacon is also his typically understated solid presence doing a lot with little. Toby Jones is fantastic in a small role – instantly memorable; and Rebecca Hall builds on a series of strong performances. But in the supporting cast it is Rockwell that stands out. Sure, he has the most to do but he is completely in this role, he manages to sink into the role which is something he rarely does. He matches the skill he showed in Lawn Dogs and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind here and it is great to see him back at his best.
I thoroughly recommend this film.