The trial of Richard Nixon. A moment of history and journalistic victory achieved by the most unlikely of people, the story of how David Frost interviewed Richard Nixon made for a compelling stage play and director Ron Howard brought that great intellectual battle to the silver screen. Set after Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate, the film explores post-Nixon America, a nation still struggling and trying to heal from his actions. British talk show host David Frost sees a chance to interview the former President as a way to create a television event.
Frost/Nixon is structured as a docudrama covering the buildup to the interviews to the tense battle between the two unthinkable foes. Every major character with exception of Frost and Nixon give interviews like it’s a documentary providing context to the landscape of the political and business world. By having the other characters from both camps speak of the two leads it builds up the characters for the audience and how they stood apart from everyone else and the similarities Nixon and Frost have with each other. Howard’s directing style shows the rigorous investigation Frost’s team poured into the Nixon interviews crossing over to Frost’s personal and professional struggles as he has to finance the whole project himself. On Nixon’s side we see how he tries to re adjust to the real world, how he yearns to be accepted back into the political realm. He sees the interviews as his opportunity to re brand himself to the American people, not as a crook but as a misunderstood leader who can be accepted back into the fold.
The two performances are phenomenal, Michael Sheen as David Frost balances the characters desire to maintain his lifestyle as a television personality with his personal struggles over what the Nixon interviews are doing to his reputation and finances. No one believes Frost is the man who should speak to Nixon, Sheen’s subtleties of how these slowly eats away of him is a great build to his 180 shift when he decides to take Nixon head on. Everyone underestimates David Frost even his own research team played by Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. Those characters are more appealing than he is, they understand and have real motivation to expose Richard Nixon, their passion especially Rockwell’s displays how important it was that America needed closure on Nixon and Watergate.
Frank Langella as Richard Nixon is a career defining performance, He and Howard display their interpretation of the man very different from others. Nixon has been parodied, portrayed and interpreted by many as a villain, “Tricky Dick”, his severed head in a jar serves as the President of the year 3000 in the animated series Futurama. Langella plays Nixon in the best way he can: as a human being, the film doesn’t ask you to pick a side on how you feel about Nixon, it just asks you to watch this characters journey. You see so many different sides to the man, his personal quirks, private and public appearances. Langella’s ability to just convey the emotions of the character through facial expression in his moments alone is incredible. He’s a man wracked with regret, self loathing and disappoint to what’s happening to him, he’s going into that interview as his last chance to get his life back.
Langella’s performance is responsible for the film’s finest moment: the final interview. Its difficult build up to this moment, Howard’s direction intends that. Nixon is fierce against Frost, not physically but psychologically, everyone’s fears of Frost being unprepared against the President are completely founded. The first three interviews are all in Nixon’s favour, Frost unable to condemn him for any of his actions across his career. It is completely demoralising for everyone, Frost on the brink of losing everything and inspired by Nixon himself, finally decides to become the journalist he needed to be and goes to face to face one last time.
Sheen, Langella and Howard create a visually rich, dialogue driven sparring match. Frost and Nixon speak of Watergate and the criminal conspiracy, who ever leaves this interview the victor their lives will change forever. Langella in this scene shows Nixon desperate to hold on to his credibility but how the scene unfolds shows the integrity of the man. Richard Nixon for the first time is presented to the American people as who really is, it is not an act, he wants the world to know what he has to say. To see such humanity portrayed to a figure that has been demonized by many is amazing, love him or hate him, you all will feel sympathy for Richard Nixon. He won’t beg for the forgiveness of the American people, he just wants them to know what he has to say. It is that powerful combination of direction, editing and acting that make Frost/Nixon such an acclaimed film.
It’s heavy subject matter at times but Howard gives it levity when needed, comic relief combined with the intellectual tension between challengers. Nixon will constantly be reinterpreted in film but here in Frost/Nixon audiences are given what are his most human moments in cinema. Frost and Nixon were worthy opponents for one another and this film gives their duel the adaptation it deserves.