He has a very solid behind-the-camera presence, does Ron Howard – whatever you may think of his previous effort, The Da Vinci Code (2006), and I know there were a great many naysayers, there is no doubting the broad, ‘tale-well-told’ quality that he has brought to work such as Apollo 13 (1995) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), and this take on ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ versus ‘Tricky Dicky’ is among his very best to date.
Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play, Frost/Nixon is led by two remarkable performances – Michael Sheen is David Frost in 1977, a successful (but perceived as shallow) British chat-show host with a big idea. US former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), following the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974, has never admitted any guilt or expressed an apology concerning the debacle – for this reason, Frost is convinced that a series of interviews with Nixon would be compelling to both the public and the television networks.
Nixon eventually agrees to Frost’s proposal, believing he can take command of such an interview, railroad Frost and resurrect his own political career. And, behind the scenes, Frost is on the ropes – his regular talk shows are being cancelled and he has not reached anywhere near the total $2 million needed to finance the project, ultimately reaching deep into his own pocket to get the show on the road. But both men will have much to learn from each other, and about themselves, before the hurly-burly is done…
Although the end result (Nixon coming as close as he ever did to a full and frank apology) is history, Howard’s decision to frame the film as if it were a genuine documentary imbues proceedings with a real sense of suspense and excitement that could not have been achieved with a straightforward play adaptation. Frost’s producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), and the two hard-bitten investigative reporters he hires, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. (Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell) all have their own ‘pieces to camera’ to complement their excellent narrative performances, which allows an insight into their minds and motivations that’s perfectly attuned to the overall mood.
Much has been made of the similarity between Sheen as Tony Blair in The Queen (2006) and his performance here, but this is really not relevant – Sheen as Frost is flamboyant, cock-sure but also fragile, seemingly the perfect foil (at least at first), to Langella’s Machiavellian interpretation of the steely, cunning old campaigner.
It is the performance of Langella’s career – while Anthony Hopkins’ impression of Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film was very impressive, here, one has the unnerving feeling that ‘Tricky’ himself has actually come back for an encore, such is the acuity of Langella’s mannerisms and vocal skills. His greatest trick, however, is that of the sympathy generated for this particular ‘devil’ – the sense of tragedy, loss and utter loneliness that characterizes Langella as Nixon will leave very few unmoved, and his interpretation of a US president ranks as perhaps the finest in cinema. Will Cillian be changing his post any time soon, one wonders?