Ron Howard’s latest film, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s successful 2006 stage play Frost/Nixon, was an intelligent, entertaining and ultimately riveting choice to kick off this year’s London Film Festival. The screenplay, penned by Morgan, dramatises the events that led up to a series of notorious interviews held in 1977 between the celebrity talk show host David Frost and the disgraced president Nixon – interviews that garnered a record television audience and landed Frost on the cover of Time magazine.
Frank Langella, who won a Tony award for his part in the Broadway production, reprises the role of the president, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the performances of his career as the ousted, almost fanatical politician hell-bent on using the interviews to clear his name and stage a political comeback. Langella’s performance is so impressive that it tends to over-shadow that of his British co-star Michael Sheen, who, although he was also an original cast member in both the UK and American productions, doesn’t quite possess Langella’s stature.
Sheen’s David Frost is a likeable but lightweight entertainer (rather than a journalist), with a playboy reputation and a television career on the brink of imploding. Morgan imagines the interviews as a gloves-off contest between two men both desperate to come out on top, and in the process salvage their reputations and careers (as well as make a wad of cash). It’s one of Frost’s researchers, the author James Reston Jr, (Sam Rockwell), who passionately demands that Frost use the interviews to secure an admission of guilt over the disgraced president’s role in the Watergate scandal, rather than merely as a vehicle to restore his faltering fame.
The witty, insightful script is handled deftly by an impressive ensemble cast that also features Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff and the always engaging Oliver Platt as the journalist Bob Zelnick. While some theatre-goers may see little point in watching the adaptation on the big screen, the medium offers Langella the perfect opportunity to really capture up close the physical weaknesses (a sweaty upper lip, for example) that so famously made Nixon unsuited for television – a victim, in Reston’s words, of the ‘reductive power of the close-up’. It’s only a shame that more time isn’t devoted to the blistering interviews; instead, a little too much attention is paid to Frost’s vanity and personal life, including a distracting, seemingly unnecessary love interest (typical of Hollywood).
Ultimately, it’s the film’s parallels with the current Republican administration that make it such a powerful political work. Nixon’s attacks on the ‘liberal’ media – in a great scene he refers to them as the ‘sons of whores’ – were being repeated across America in the run-up to the 2008 election. And Nixon’s abuse of executive privilege (‘if the president does it, it’s not illegal’) has been more than matched by the secretive Bush/Cheney team. While the film is undoubtedly a slick, commercial feature, it’s encouraging to see successful directors like Howard use their influence to take aim at the White House in a smart, captivating way.