When Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States he did so to avoid impeachment or having to stand trial for corruption and obstruction of justice charges. Many people thought the pardon by Gerald Ford was a deal so Nixon (Frank Langella) wouldn’t have to admit to his crimes. In 1977, his political career now over, Nixon decided to participate in a series of TV interviews with a little known British talk show host, David Frost (Michael Sheen), working in Australia. For $600,000 Nixon agreed to the interview. Both men were looking to use the interviews to reinvigorate their careers. According to the movie’s version of events, Nixon wanted to get back in the game of politics while Frost wanted credibility as a serious journalist by getting Nixon to admit his wrongdoings. Peter Morgan wrote a successful play, “Frost/Nixon”, based on the interviews and this historical drama has been adapted into a screenplay with Ron Howard as the director.
“Frost/Nixon” begins with an introduction showing us the events of Watergate in a brief montage that led to Nixon’s downfall. We then see David Frost hosting an episode of “Frost Over Australia”, a show he doesn’t enjoy. After the completion of taping the episode, Frost sees Nixon on TV boarding the helicopter to leave the White House for good. He catches a glimpse of Nixon’s face and sees something. Frost begins to inquire about obtaining a deal for a TV interview and is willing to spend his own money for the rights. The interviews cover four sections of Nixon’s life: his background, Vietnam, domestic policy, and Watergate. The film touches on each of these sections but it’s the Watergate section that brings out the most tension and is the main focus. Frost brings in two investigative reporters Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (James Rockwell) to do the research. Along with help from his producer, John Birt (Matthew McFadyen), the staff puts together the interview questions. The interview becomes a battle of wills. At first Nixon gains the upper hand by evading the questions directly in order to justify his actions. Zelnick and Reston are furious that Nixon could be so elusive. From their viewpoint Nixon owes it to the American people to truthfully answer for his crimes. Frost presses Nixon until he admits to “letting the American people down.”
Ron Howard directs “Frost/Nixon” with much more restraint than he has shown throughout his career. He has a difficult task of making a television interview dramatic on film and bringing tension to real life events we are already familiar with . Howard accomplished something similar in “Apollo 13,” but even that movie had a sentimentality that he mostly avoids here. Howard doesn’t fall into the trap of making a filmed play. Peter Morgan’s script is mostly straightforward but the dialogue is smart and he does an excellent job of focusing on the key moments from the interview so that it doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail.
Frank Langella is great as Nixon. Langella doesn’t particularly look like Nixon but he embodies him and lets us see into the contradictions and occasional outbursts. Langella doesn’t rely on mimicry. He has moments of warmth such as when Nixon expresses regret that he doesn’t really like people and was probably in the wrong profession. Langella is so assured that he succeeds in allowing us to sympathize with Nixon and still be appalled at his actions. Michael Sheen matches up well against Langella. Frost is seen as a playboy who is trying to prove himself. He starts out as a reporter who seems in over his head before he learns to become more confrontational surprising Nixon with the directness of his questions. In order to successfully convey the battle of wills it is essential to have two actors like Langella and Sheen who can match each other in determination.
“Frost Nixon” is a compelling historical drama that succeeds because of the two main actors. Howard is smart enough to let his actors and Morgan’s script tell the story. If you like seeing real life events intelligently done “Frost/Nixon” is worth seeing.