A film version of a play about two talking heads. Please. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does work, spectacularly, as a matter of fact. It helps that the two people are disgraced President Richard M. Nixon and British charm boy David Frost, the TV interviewer who waved millions in front of the Watergate trickster to lure him on camera for the trial he never had. Ancient history? Well, the interview took place in 1977, and we know the outcome in advance. “I let down the American people,” Nixon admitted to Frost and an audience of more than 45 million. All the more remarkable, then, that director Ron Howard has turned Peter Morgan’s stage success into a grabber of a movie laced with tension, stinging wit and potent human drama.
Start with “magnificent” to describe Frank Langella’s bone-deep performance as Nixon. It’s one for the time capsule. What Langella does is less imitation than total immersion. He gets the man’s cunning, paranoia, failed charm and inescapable sadness. It’s clear that the Tony Award he won won’t be the last prize Langella collects for this role of a lifetime.
Cheers, too, for Michael Sheen, so good as Tony Blair in Morgan’s The Queen, who plays Frost with a level of fear bristling just under his smooth confidence. Frost knows pulling off this interview could be a career maker or breaker. And he knows he can’t do it alone. He brings on journalists Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), whose animus toward the ex-president borders on personal vendetta. One fun scene involves Reston meeting Nixon and stumbling through a timid hello. “Oh, that was devastating,” says Zelnick with a laugh.
Nixon, living with his frail wife, Pat (Patty McCormack), at a villa by the sea in San Clemente, California, charges an ex-Marine, Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), with his prep work. Bacon is exceptional, showing the genuine warmth of a man whose main job is to save Nixon from his own hubris.
Howard infuses the four taped interviews, held in the home of a Nixon friend, with palm-sweating suspense. It’s a kick to watch Nixon throw Frost off his game with an off-color remark. “Do any fornicating last night?” the prez asks his inquisitor just before the cameras roll. Frost seizes the day in the end, going in for the kill on Watergate. On the night before the last interview, a slurring, drunk Nixon phones Frost and sentimentally links them as victims of a class system that will always keep them on the outside looking in. The phone call is pure fiction but deeply affecting nonetheless, a dramatist’s way into the head of a man who can never be known from the cold facts alone. Langella’s playing of it is quietly phenomenal.
Howard does his most ingenious directing to date by using the interviews as a way to peel back the layers that create a public image. As such, Nixon has never seemed more accountable or more shockingly exposed. Frost/Nixon, one of the year’s best films, far exceeds its roots as docudrama. It cuts to the core of a toxic culture that sees politics as show business, a culture still all too recognizable as our own.