On the first day of government class as a freshman in college, my professor entered the room pushing a television on a small cart and carrying a stack of magazines. He introduced himself and said that if anyone had not yet purchased the textbook to save their money. For those that already bought it, take it back and get a refund. Class time would be spent watching the Watergate hearings and our text was Time magazine. There was no better way to study government. It was the most interesting class I had ever taken and I thought college was way cool.
Frost/Nixon directed by Ron Howard is a searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. The screenplay is by Peter Morgan, adapted from his play. Mr. Morgan has shown an uncanny ability to provide an intimate look at famous public figures as he demonstrated in his scripts for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Clearly, he has continued to hone and advance his craft with Frost/Nixon.
David Frost was a popular British television talk show host in the ’70’s. He had shows in the UK as well as Australia and was known as a bit of a playboy. He was not a hard-hitting journalist and began his career as a comedian. So when he tried to get financing for his interview with Nixon, he was quickly turned down by the big networks and ridiculed by the serious Washington press corps.
The craft of the film is solid drama all the way. Great care went into getting all the details right. The movie is lensed in a straightforward manner echoing the face-to-face interview showdown. But there is a hint of documentary style in there as well. Cross-cutting to characters who are recounting their experiences as events unfold on the screen. Mr. Howard did not lean heavily on actual footage of the day, but he shows extended and brutal newsreel footage from Cambodia which seemed entirely unnecessary and out of place. The fusion of these two strong styles punctuates the personal involvement of the characters. Everyone has a strong personal agenda. All are playing serious except for Frost, who seems to be skating along as if he was hosting another publicity stunt.
Frank Langella is nothing short of magnificent as Nixon. Cold, calculating, still at the top of his game intellectually. But a broken man, having been forced to resign the presidency. Mr. Langella delivers beautifully on the voice as well as the physicality of Nixon. So much so that we believe we are actually watching Nixon after a few minutes into the film. Nixon was a master at pushing his opponents back on their heels with well timed comments. Watching his performance makes me want to revisit Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Nixon in Oliver Stone’s film.
David Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who was positively heroic as Tony Blair in The Queen. He shapes Frost quickly and solidly and we soon learn that Frost is in way over his head on almost every front. He is out maneuvered by Nixon in the first three interview sittings and everyone wonders when he is going to take control. In a pivotal scene on a simple, fenced in patio of a home in Southern California, we realize that as an Englishman, Frost doesn’t share the passion and need for justice in the way his American colleagues do. But he has everything on the line now, financially and professionally and realizes he needs to raise his game. I don’t believe his motivations are aligned with the Americans all around him.
The film’s turning point is when Nixon makes a late night call to Frost in his hotel room after he has had a drink or two. It’s a truly amazing scene by Mr. Langella as he channels Nixon’s desire to compete, even make right ,the uncertainty in the minds of Americans, with an even stronger desire to be liked. Frost finally does his homework and the rest is history.
Everything about this film technically is stunning, particularly the editing, which seems to compress this two hour film down to about forty-five minutes. Hans Zimmer’s score does not over dramatize, but instead compliments the mood and tone. It’s post-presidential and appropriately subtle. The Academy has nominated Frost/Nixon for 5 Oscars: Picture, Directing, Editing, Adapted Screenplay and Frank Langella for Actor. It’s a big time film and I highly recommend it.
Photos from Universal Studios. Visit the official Frost/Nixon web site here. It’s well done, informative and links off learn more sites.
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