Outside of George W. Bush, Richard Nixon has to be the most despised man in the history of American politics.
The beginning of Ron Howard’s adaptation of playwright Peter Morgan’s stage play, Frost/Nixon, shows why via a stream of archived footage: from taking the mantle of President of the United States from Lyndon Johnson; to continuing the Democrat president’s Vietnam War with vigour; the Watergate scandal; his resignation as President, and the subsequent clemency from incoming President Gerald Ford.
Yet for all of the justified bad vibes thrown towards Nixon, he may well have been the ultimate sad man, coming across here as an empathetic figure, and not the slouched monster many have portrayed him.
Frost/Nixon is based on the true events surrounding a series of taped interviews between British talk show host and playboy, David Frost (Michael Sheen), and the embattled former President, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella).
With Frost punching well above his weight, Nixon agreed to the interviews, believing he will be able to wrap Frost around his little finger and submit him to his will. But little did he, nor anyone else know, was that Frost would go on to coerce “Tricky Dicky” into a confession, holding him accountable for him crimes.
Howard has crafted Morgan’s material to depict a verbal boxing match. Both “fighters” undergo a period of preparation before; come in swinging when the bell rings; and return to their corners after each round to heed the advice of their corner men.
Howard’s shooting style during these scenes is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Pacino/De Niro confrontation in Heat. The camera is often placed over one actors shoulder to capture the reaction of their co-star. As a result, the films editors – Daniel P. Harley and Mike Hill – put in the hard yards, and deliver an exceptionally cut film which flows effortlessly.
First class character actors have been cast to portray these real life figures. Langella and Sheen – both veterans of Morgan’s stage play – reprise their roles without a hint of coasting. Langella’s Nixon is a wonderful mix of tightly wound aggression, intellect, and surprising charm; and Sheen counters brilliantly as the charming yet determined smooth operator, with a flashy white smile and twinkle in his eye.
Supporting roles have been fulfilled admirably by a talented ensemble. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell more than adequately play the part of crusading liberals hired as Frost’s researchers; while Kevin Bacon is his usually solid self as Nixon’s long time aide and bitter Vietnam veteran.
Although originally a stage play, which has won multiple awards on Broadway and London, Frost/Nixon is a story which needed to be shown though a visual medium, whether it be TV or cinema.
After all, consider Nixon’s relationship with the tube: a debate against the much more accessible JFK cost him the presidency; his resignation speech saw the former Commander in Speech humiliate himself in front of millions; and his impromptu confession was a part of a taped for television interview.
It is only fitting that the events regrading the latter be shown on screen, and in this case the bigger is better.