In 1977 Richard M. Nixon granted British playboy presenter turned journalist David Frost a series of twelve television interviews. This was the first time Nixon had spoken since his resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal and Americans waited with baited breath, longing for the trial they’d been denied by newly president Gerald Ford’s blanket pardon. For eleven of twelve interviews nothing happened. Nixon, a master politician squared off against a foppish interviewer, dominated the conversation and twisted every question to earn sympathy. It was only in the final interview, the twelfth, that Frost struck by back pinning Nixon to the wall and forcing a moment of honesty in which Tricky Dick gave America the admission and apology it hungered for.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that Ron Howard’s movie, based on a play written about the event, reels out much the same way. For most of its running time Frost/Nixon languishes. Nothing happens. It’s only in the film’s final moments, as Frost at last decides to take the interview seriously, that Howard ratchets up the intensity, slamming home his movie’s place in this year’s Oscar race and justifying the existence of an otherwise low-key, forgettable movie.
It is Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon which carries the film. His Nixon is a brilliant and broken husk, desperate to return to power and unwilling to admit that it’s no longer possible. When he’s contacted by David Frost (Michael Sheen) for an interview, he jumps at it in the perhaps unrealistic hope that speaking out will somehow rehabilitate him in the eyes of the American people. This movie is, more than anything else, about his journey in coming to grips with the fact that his political career is over, and that the best he can hope for from here on out are endless days wearing loafers and playing his most hated sport: golf.
Golf is a horrifying game, but being forced to spend his life putting hardly seems an appropriate penance for Nixon’s national villainy. To prepare for the interview, Frost assembles a team of American researchers, who urge him to make this interview count for something. Give America the trial is never got, they urge, while Frost traipses off to star-studded LA parties with his leggy British girlfriend (Rebecca Hall). Michael Sheen and the rest of the actors in Frost’s interview team are criminally underutilized. Sheen, who looks almost uncannily like Frost, does an admirable job but he’s far too rarely on screen. When he is on screen, he’s dominated by others, in particular Nixon, and more often than not reduced to half-hearted platitudes. Nixon calls their interviews a duel, and it’s a duel he’s winning.
It’s Langella’s Nixon that you’ll remember, growling at his subordinates or ranting uncontrollably over the phone as Frost sits in stunned silence. It’s as if Frost can’t come to life until Nixon finally starts to fade away, and until he does David Frost is a man in the shadow of a giant. Kevin Bacon plays Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan, delivering an almost creepy performance as a man so totally devoted to the ex-president that his loyalty at times borders on sexual attraction. Whether that’s an intentional choice by Bacon or only a side effect of the script is anyone’s guess, but it’s eerily effective in adding to the overbearing presence of Tricky Dick.
In setting up the interviews, Frost/Nixon struggles to find focus. David Frost isn’t taking things seriously, is barely involved in the process outside of fund raising, and so it’s hard to make him the center of the film. Nixon’s journey ends up being the heart of the story, but he’s the villain. David Frost is still our protagonist and the guy we’re rooting for. It’s a strange dynamic and one which the movie never quite sorts out until those final moments when director Ron Howard cuts to the chase, Frost drops his devil-may-care persona, and in one of the most intense conversations you’ll see on screen this year crushes Nixon between an interview vice grip. This is an ending which justifies the means taken to achieve it. Everything which came before it becomes worthwhile in those final moments, and makes Frost/Nixon a must see.