A history aficionado I am not. Everything I know about Richard Nixon, I learned from All the President’s Men. Still, I found myself excited for the impending release of Frost/Nixon. I wanted the cinematic history lesson, as I liked the last one I received about an ex-president in JFK. Alas, that film wasn’t so much about the man, as it was the possible conspiracy surrounding his assassination, and Frost/Nixon wasn’t so much about the latter man’s scandal as it was the story of the attempt to kick him off his high horse and bring him down to the common man. A nation awaits his confession of wrongdoing to a British tabloid journalist, whose reputation and lifeblood are wagered against the ex-most powerful man in the world.
Richard Nixon was shamed into resigning from the presidency as he was on the precipice of the first and only impeachment of a president in the history of the United States. David Frost (the “Frost” section of the title, if you were wondering), a talk-show host, fresh from interviewing the Bee-Gees, glimpses Nixon’s resignation speech on television and wonders what the ratings must be like for such an event. The exorbitant viewership numbers, coupled with the controversy swarming around the president concerning the Watergate scandal equal big dollars in Frost’s eyes, and he sets out to grill Nixon for the promise of money.
How does one go about arranging a sit-down with the most publicly embarrassed figure in history? Especially one with Frost’s pedigree? Imagine Ryan Seacrest interrogating George W. Bush about his war crimes. The poor guy can’t even get Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to look his way. It’s the same prospect that interested Frost in the first place: money. However, Frost is no fool and knows the potential magnitude of the situation he’s getting himself into. He hires two crack investigators, to go along with his producer, in order to aid him with questions and research. He lets them do their job, while he goes out and tries to sell the impending interview to the big three networks in the U.S. Unfortunately for Frost, the networks fear the worst and refuse to finance the project. He had already handed over $200,000 of his own money to Mr. Nixon, cocky that his (somewhat limited) reputation and the rarity of the interview would sell themselves. It was not to be.
With the stressors of staking his personal and financial neck on the line for the project, Frost has difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Four interviews are scheduled, at two-hours each in length, to cover a wide range of agreed-upon topics, with Watergate being the topic-du-jour on the final day. From the beginning, it is clear Frost is outmatched by a far superior opponent. A man who brought himself from nothing, battling the cronyism in Washington politics to rise above all contenders. It’s evident how Nixon was able to accomplish everything he had. Amidst constant pressure from his own research team about the results he’s attaining from the interviews, Frost retains his calm exterior throughout, making time to attend the premier of The Slipper and the Rose, a film he produced. But, can he reel in all of his focuses to deliver “Richard Nixon the trial he never had?”
Based on a play by Peter Morgan (The Queen), who also wrote the film, Frost/Nixon was far more cinematic than I could’ve imagined. I expected to be overpowered and entertained mainly by the back and forth of the interview banter between the two titular characters, but the film contains far more than that. Indeed, there is so much the presence of a camera and the art of editing was able to contribute, I wonder how it could’ve been a play at all. The reliance of the on-camera close-up was such a viable part of the storytelling it would appear the story was tailor-made for the big screen. Director, Ron Howard, no doubt had much input in the adaptation from stage to screen, and it allows him to bring a richer immersion in the world than inherently allowed by the story.
I was amazed by Frank Langella’s Nixon. My familiarity with Langella and his work to date, was spotty at best. He crafted a character I didn’t have a firm grasp on, but one whose reputation far precedes him. It’s a performance Langella will be instantly associated with in my eyes, as he embodies one of America’s largest mistakes. It’s a wonder to me that the producers of the film stalled lengthily before succumbing to allowing him to reprise the character he had already earned a Tony Award for in Morgan’s play. We can’t thank them enough for finally coming to their senses. The rest of the performances are deservedly lauded, but like Nixon, Langella’s is a giant among them. His easily goes down as my favorite leading-man portrayal of the year.
The film did not grant me everything I wished for, but through no fault of the film itself. I can learn history from other media. The viewer feels for Frost’s financial struggles and circumstance, but it is difficult to understand why he refuses to bring the effort he should have known would be necessary to catch the big bad wolf. This is understood as the character’s cocksure nature at the beginning, but losing his one-on-one battles and lacking the confidence of his team certainly should have forced him to strive for perfection. This brings the summation down to less-than-perfect, but in no way mars the entire production.
Good cinematic material is elevated wholly by an award-worthy performance from Frank Langella. The film is getting a bit more props than I feel it deserves, but makes for an enjoyable two hours and at least one riveting portrayal. Richard Nixon has been re-written in the form of Frank Langella, and we are all better filmgoers for it. Frost/Nixon makes for a rich character piece, even if you feel you know the characters already. A great depiction of a disheartened Goliath taking on a literal David.