Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play of the same name, is one of the more entertaining cinematic experiences of the year and for no other reason than Richard Nixon himself. He might have been a disgraced president but he nonetheless makes for a compelling fictional character. Nixon has been played by a few actors now, though Anthony Hopkins was probably the best, until Frank Langella came along. Langella’s Nixon is less sinister than Hopkins’ but equally pathetic and perhaps more formidable an opponent.
Howard’s film stars Langella and Michael Sheen as David Frost. Both actors played the same characters on Broadway, which probably explains the easy confidence they possess as they slip into familiar skin. Although Sheen’s vocal pattern is almost identical to David Frost’s, this movie belongs to Frank Langella, who so inhabits Richard Nixon it almost feels, at times, that it is Nixon himself.
The story takes place after Nixon has resigned and the media has mostly given up chasing that story, partly because people don’t want to hear anything from Nixon and also because Nixon himself seems to have gone into hiding. David Frost gets the crazy idea to have a series of provocative interviews with Nixon that will rescue his waning talk show career.
But Nixon probably wouldn’t have agreed if it weren’t for the fat check Frost writes to him. For that money, Nixon will placate the colorful British journalist with the “effeminate” shoes. For a while, Nixon has him just where he wants him. In fact, Nixon kicks his limey ass. At some point, though, it occurs to Frost that this might be the biggest mistake of his career and Frost then turns the interview around and attacks Nixon in a way he’s never been confronted on camera before.
If you go back and look at the tapes between the real Frost/Nixon (frostnixon.com), you will see a defensive, sometimes shaken and near tears Nixon. Langella plays it a bit differently, but much of the same agony is there. It produces conflicting feelings for the man because our natures dictates that we sympathize with him.
Frost gets what he wants and maybe the public does too: the opportunity to watch Nixon roasted on a spit. The story of the film, though, isn’t so much the interviews as it is the odd relationship between the two men. Mostly, it reveals oddities about Nixon. Frost is portrayed as a celebrity-chummy airhead, the Larry King of London.
Nixon, as portrayed by the brilliant Langella, is paranoid, observant, funny, and has the good sense to not think he knows everything. These smaller moments, when he consults with Kevin Bacon for advice on how to act in the interview, or when he explains why he must dab his upper lip with a napkin because sweat cost him the election against Kennedy.
In some ways, this is a cartoon version of the real Frost/Nixon interview sessions. But Ron Howard has evolved beyond anything he’s ever done before. Much of the credit is owed to Peter Morgan, but it’s Howard’s eye that sees the brief glances, that lingers on Nixon’s melancholy, that knows when to go in close on his darting eyes.
Whether it’s true or not that Nixon wanted the opportunity to fall on his sword before the American people, the fictionalized Nixon did. Surely there is room for both the historical record and the artistic interpretation of it.