Have you ever wondered what would happen if you amassed a cast full of excellent character actors and made a movie with them? Well, look no further than 2008’s Frost/Nixon. Led by the superb Frank Langella, this dramatization of the post-Watergate interviews between British television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Langella) is an extremely well-constructed film in every way, but of course it is the acting that stands out.
David Frost is a British media personality, a playboy who spends his time interviewing celebrities and living the good life. After the American Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, he takes it into his head to conduct a series of interviews with the disgraced politician, hoping for huge ratings and a major payoff. He assembles a crack team of researchers (Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell: seriously, that’s enough reason to see the movie right there) and actually manages to get Nixon himself on board, for a tidy sum, of course. The hard work remains to be done, however; while Frost is trying to gain network backing and financial support, his team is trying to construct hard-hitting questions while balancing their own varied agendas. Meanwhile, on the President’s side, his Chief of Staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) attempts to maintain control of the situation in the hopes of creating positive spin for Nixon and clearing the way for some kind of political future. Ultimately, Frost finds damning evidence against Nixon and the interview essentially closes the door on his political career.
Despite knowing very little about the whole Watergate scandal (I know, I’m a bad American), this was a fascinating film. I’m not generally a fan of movies where people just sit around and talk, but the performances in this case were by and large so compelling as to make a movie about putting together an interview really interesting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie is based upon a play by Peter Morgan, but unlike many plays-turned-films, this one manages to hide its roots. There are plenty of scene changes and locations that can be utilized, and Director Ron Howard does a great job of keeping things moving without getting bogged down in details. And there are a lot of details. One flaw of the film is that it does assume a certain amount of knowledge of the real-life events being discussed, and I definitely found myself lost a few times.
Still, plays-turned-films are always about the acting, and this one is no slouch. The supporting cast, as mentioned previously but also including Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, all bring their A-game. Kevin Bacon in particular is truly great, while Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are always so much fun to watch. Without knowing a lot about the real David Frost, I think that Michael Sheen does good work in showing us the dynamics of his character: he changes from thinking the experience will be a lark to nearly giving up to finding some motivation to make something special happen. Still, for reasons I can’t put my finger on, I didn’t find his performance completely convincing. Perhaps that is how we are meant to react, given his opponent on the field: Langella as Nixon. Frank Langella may be the reigning god of character actors. One can only imagine the pressure to portray someone as iconic as Richard Nixon, who still looms large in current memory. Before watching the film I remember thinking “Langella as Nixon? If you say so. He looks more like Reagan.” While his looks are perhaps not completely perfect, he still manages to capture the person with great skill. We see so many sides of Nixon, and while he’s really sort of the villain of the piece, he is ultimately a sympathetic character in Langella’s hands; he did what he believed was best to do, but he understands what it has cost him and has the grace to move on.
Again, I’m not generally a fan of movies with more talk than action, but this is a fine piece of work. The cinematography and costuming deserve mention for providing a very authentic feel to the movie, and Ron Howard’s direction is very keen and insightful. Frost/Nixon definitely feels like a Howard movie: it’s very character-driven and human. We learn as much about Frost and Nixon from watching how they approach the interview as we do from seeing the event itself. I don’t recall any scenes that did not serve to strengthen the characters and provide us with some extra detail of their personalities. Dramatic without being over-the-top, amusing at times, intelligent and above all, professionally crafted. What happens when you construct a cast entirely of character actors? In the case of Frost/Nixon, you get an extremely worthwhile film.