Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
What angers many American citizens more than most things in the world is when people of power get away with something they should be held accountable for. That was especially true of how practically the entire liberal population reacted when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after the Watergate scandal, as they see it, as a means to avoid responsibility. That he was pardoned by Gerald Ford made them angrier, because that meant he wouldn’t stand trial or face any consequences for what he did, let alone apologize for what he’d done. Nixon was disgraced, and he agreed to a series of four extensive television interviews with British talk show host David Frost in an attempt to win over the public. What he didn’t expect was a publicly viewed ambush…
Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” is based on playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan’s stage play of the same name, and it’s a strong, compelling retelling of real events that present a duel between an iconic figure and one who would become iconic afterwards.
Frank Langella presents a credible Nixon without foaming at the mouth in the name of exaggerating the role, which isn’t demonized. He plays a man who might regret his deeds but will try to justify them and is too stubborn to admit his wrongdoings. It’s a compelling portrayal that deserved the recognition it got, including an Academy Award nomination. But just as strong is Michael Sheen’s underrated performance as his adversary, David Frost, a boyishly charming, charismatic showman who has no interest in politics but sees this interview/duel with Nixon as a way to boost his career. Sheen’s depiction of Frost is fascinating, because he plays him as someone who is either a pure optimist or someone pretending to be a pure optimist while hiding nervousness and uncertainty behind a smile and outgoing personality. And think about it—if you had to go one-on-one on public television with one of the most controversial figures in the White House, wouldn’t you be at least a little uncertain about your chances of winning? (Asking that question made me pay more attention to Sheen’s performance the more times I watch this film.)
Frost was a TV personality who had a lot riding on this. In the first place, people considered him either crazy or stupid for even thinking of interviewing Nixon—they were sure he’d say no, and if he said yes, they were afraid he’s glamorize him. He paid a fortune to arrange the interviews when all networks wouldn’t devote airtime to serious journalism. Frost won the opportunity to do the interviews when Nixon, who (along with his advisors) thought him to be a lightweight interviewer, saw his opportunity to change the image the public saw him as. When Frost and his three allies—producer John Burt (Matthew McFayden) and reporters James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt)—play hardball by asking difficult questions, Nixon talks his way through and out of each issue.
It seems like a done deal—with three out of four interviews in which Frost and Nixon are at a stalemate, there’s clearly no self-recognition from Nixon about Watergate, Frost is losing confidence, his friends (save for his supportive girlfriend, Caroline, played by an astonishingly beautiful Rebecca Hall) are becoming skeptical, and it looks like the final interview will amount to nothing. But Frost shocked the world when he managed to ask the right questions and get the right answers, leading to Nixon being humiliated (especially after saying the controversial quote: “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”) and finally owning up to what he had done. Everyone already knew he was guilty, but they wanted to hear him say it. Thanks to Frost, he finally did. Frost became a more widely-known celebrity and Nixon was able to show his face in public again, feeling the truth had set him free.
It’s a gripping story told very well through solid direction by Howard, brilliant writing by Morgan, and excellent acting from the cast (which also includes Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones as two of Nixon’s aides). Though I have to wonder what creative liberties are taken from historic facts, I don’t let it bother me because it is such a good story and the facts shouldn’t get away from that. I know the interviews are shortened; I know certain things didn’t happen; and I’m pretty sure a late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost about cheeseburgers didn’t happen (I’m assuming). I don’t care. I’m enjoying “Frost/Nixon” and the battle of wits it portrays.