British television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) thinks he has scored the coup of a lifetime: interviewing former American President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) for a series of televised interviews. Dismissed by the American news media as a light-touch interviewer and struggling to find a network willing to buy the interviews once complete, Frost also must contend with Nixon himself: an arrogant master politician who sees the series as a chance to redeem and rewrite his troubled legacy.
Frost/Nixon, adapted by Peter Morgan from his own acclaimed stage play, recreates the lead-up and recording of the famous interview series between Frost and Nixon in 1977. The first episode remains the most-viewed political interview in American television history, and the series gave rise to one of Nixon’s most contentious statements ever (‘when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal’). In a sense it all seems a slightly odd subject matter for a narrative feature, given all of the other angles that could be taken regarding Richard Nixon’s presidency. On the other hand it does showcase the one-on-one conversations between him and Frost, and two opposing characters in conversation is always going to generate half-decent drama.
The film does start rather awkwardly, with the early action constantly interrupted by ‘talking heads’ interviews of the various people involved: Nixon’s staff members, and Frost’s producers and researchers. It is a technique that does not really work in film. As part of a theatrical play they would function quite differently, as theatre is essentially a non-naturalistic medium. In a cinematic context they feel weirdly intrusive and fake, and detract considerably from the story. As the story progresses, these intrusions thankfully settle down. Once Frost and Nixon begin their interviews the film streamlines considerably, and the second half plays much more confidently as a result.
Frank Langella gives a masterful performance as Nixon. Thankfully director Ron Howard has not made an serious attempt to make Langella look like the former President; instead Langella simply embodies the man’s general cadence and physicality. It frees him to perform the role rather than impersonate his character. The result is a visibly conflicted and troubled individual, expressing multiple layers of pride, belligerence and shame in differing measures from scene to scene. I am a huge fan of Langella’s acting, and I feel this may well be his career-best screen performance.
A similar approach is taken with Michael Sheen’s performance as David Frost, although largely as a consequence of the story he feels overshadowed somewhat by Nixon’s towering presence. A range of hugely talented actors fill out the supporting roles, including Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt and a particularly strong Kevin Bacon, but ultimately the limelight is shared between the two leads – and dominated by Langella.
Despite the strength of the interview sequences, particularly Nixon’s climactic confessions regarding Watergate and his own corruption, the film never quite manages to shake its core problem: is it the most effective way to examine Nixon’s post-presidential life? It never feels quite dramatic enough, or important enough. It’s mostly a very well constructed drama, but I do question the foundation upon which it is built. Sometimes things made for the intimacy of the theatre simply do not work when scaled up to a motion picture.