Film Review: Frost/Nixon

Battle of wits between talk-show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon, based on the stage hit. Frank Langella's bravura performance helps make this a dramatic knockout.

A hit when it was staged in London and later on Broadway, Frost/Nixon turned the background preparations for a series of interviews between talk-show host David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon into the stuff of high drama. Using only a bank of video monitors to establish settings, playwright Peter Morgan distilled potentially boring question-and-answer sessions into a riveting examination of power, celebrity and corruption. Anchored by a tour-de-force performance by Frank Langella as Nixon, Frost/Nixon was compelling theatre, immensely entertaining and surprisingly suspenseful.

Langella is in fine form in the film version of Frost/Nixon, which provides a broader canvas for the story at the expense of some theatrical fireworks. For the film, director Ron Howard introduces Langella gradually, cautiously, letting viewers get used to the idea of an actor who bears little physical resemblance to the President. Any misgivings about Langella's appearance soon disappear under the force of his performance. He doesn't mimic Nixon so much as inhabit him from the inside out, finding psychological explanations for his behavior that are utterly persuasive. This is a powerful, hostile, frighteningly intelligent man who is simultaneously angry and bewildered at the public's perception of him.

As journalist James Reston, Jr. (played by Sam Rockwell) notes, "It's impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon." That's the central conundrum of the film, one ultimately solved by Langella's honesty, Morgan's incisive writing and Howard's supportive direction. Their Nixon teases and toys with Frost, played by Michael Sheen as a sort of dimwitted playboy who's in over his head. "It didn't sound too arrogant or self-serving?" Nixon asks an underling after one dismissive exchange with the television celebrity.

Although Frost's story is not without its intriguing aspects, Morgan treats him and his companions as little more than comic relief. (Partisans on both sides have complained about the script's accuracy.) Sheen depicts Frost as too lightweight to compete with Langella's Nixon, underplaying his role in anticipation of the film's climactic confrontation. The rest of the cast is serviceable if unspectacular.

Howard wisely resists the opportunity to open up the play's settings. The director uses some real and some manufactured locations, but the focus of the film remains fixed squarely on the acting. He adopts a quiet, unobtrusive style that gives Langella and Sheen room to maneuver. Morgan's script occasionally uses broad strokes to flesh out details that are no longer part of the popular culture, but he also singles out telling incidents with the precision of a surgeon. It's to Howard's credit that neither extreme feels too jarring.

On the surface, Frost/Nixon seems like a tougher sell than The Queen, which won Morgan an Oscar nomination. Thirty years ago is ancient history for many filmgoers, and directors as varied as Robert Altman and Oliver Stone have already tackled Nixon's career. Two scenes set this film apart. The final interview between Frost and Nixon hits all the expected notes of anger, intimidation and remorse, revealing hidden reserves in both characters. It is written, staged and acted on a level that lifts Frost/Nixon far above what passes for drama in most films. An earlier scene in which a drunken Nixon makes a nighttime call to Frost's hotel room is even more astonishing. Granted, it's a showboating turn by Langella, but it's also one of the most breathtaking bits of acting you are likely to see this year.