If this year’s presidential election is any indication, we can be certain that politics is America’s true national pastime. Though, this is no recent development. Generations of Americans have found themselves playing the roll of armchair pundit every four years as they become transfixed with the machinations of the political system. The very definition of a spectator sport, American politics is subject to perhaps more scrutiny, analysis and projection than the World Series and Super Bowl combined. And when the President is concerned? Well then, there is no greater ratings draw.
In 1977, British journalist David Frost succeeded in accomplishing what leagues of reporters, politicians and Americans failed in their unending attempts to obtain: an apology from Richard Nixon for the part he played in the Watergate scandal. This apology and the insurmountable odds that Frost was faced with in his attempts to obtain it would be entered into our history as a journalistic feat that has gone seemingly unmatched. It was also the culmination of months of work by Frost and his colleagues, who first approached Nixon’s staff with the proposed interview as a means to seek both revitalized television ratings and eventually the respect of the journalism community. Frost’s conversation with the former commander-in-chief would go on to become the most watched political interview in television history, as well as cement Frost as being much more than a softball-lofting talk show host.
The Frost/Nixon interviews and the events surrounding them were adapted into a successful Broadway play, with Frank Langella playing the role of Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. The play was in turn produced as director Ron Howard’s latest film, featuring both Langella and Sheen reprising their roles. What you must understand is that Howard’s task of transforming the over 28 hours of interview footage, not to mention Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play, into a concise and insightful film was no small order. This was after all, a movie whose centerpiece was two people talking in a room. To address this, Frost/Nixon spends a great deal of time on the events leading up to the interviews, as well as preparations and reactions that both sides go through after each of the four scheduled sessions. Through the initial negotiations between Frost and Nixon’s camp, it is clear that the two sides are sizing each other up. The preamble to what is initially presented as an uneven match, Nixon’s confidence in his ability to control the interview is matched only by Frost’s steadfast belief that regardless of the outcome, it will make for spectacular television.
Frost/Nixon is above all, a showcase for Frank Langella. His role as Richard Milhous Nixon is a dangerous one, as the embattled former president has been the subject of countless terrible impersonations. It would be easy for an actor to simply perform a characterization of Richard Nixon, but Langella’s performance transcends this and shows us the confidence, arrogance and deep remorse that the man likely carried with him to his grave. Through the film, Nixon is shown as a man who was used to being in control of his world, regardless of the situation he was placed in. It isn’t until the final interview with David Frost is conducted that Langella shows the audience what Nixon might have felt when he made his only public apology regarding the Watergate scandal. The result is gripping, as Langella becomes more powerful in the role when he is not speaking… instead, staring off into the distance in silent remorse. Langella has already received a Golden Globe nomination for the role (and will likely receive an Oscar nom as well) and his performance of the oft-impersonated former-president is perhaps the best we’ve seen.
There are of course, many other shining performances in Frost/Nixon. Michael Sheen flawlessly exhibits the swagger and resolve of David Frost as the character transcends by the film’s end from ratings-monger to a journalist who understands the responsibility he has unwittingly accepted. Kevin Bacon turns in a strong performance as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s patriotic and loyal chief of staff. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell do fine as Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. respectively, Frost’s ‘corner men’ and the two who seemingly frameworked the interview. Frost/Nixon is a powerful look at a time when America was in desperate need of healing and was able to do so thanks to the efforts of an unlikely journalist. It is a film that gives us a stirring look at both Richard Nixon’s post-presidential years and the political gameplay that surrounded his interviews with David Frost.