by Mel Valentin
"Frost/Nixon," Ron Howard’s ("The Da Vinci Code," "Cinderella Man," "A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13," "The Paper," "Backdraft") adaptation of the Tony-nominated play by Peter Morgan ("The Other Boleyn Girl," "The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland"), centers on the televised interviews between David Frost, a British journalist and talk show host, and former president Richard M. Nixon three years after he resigned from public office in disgrace. Nixon, elected twice, first narrowly in 1968, then by a landslide four years later, was forced to resign as a result of his involvement in the Watergate scandal, the 1972 break-in by Republican operatives of the Democratic National Committee’s office in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the subsequent cover-up by Nixon and his subordinates. Equal parts paranoid, insecure, brilliant, and obsessed with power, Nixon left office as one of the most reviled and despised public figures in recent memory (soon to be joined by the outgoing president whose poll ratings have actually sunk lower than Nixon’s at this lowest).Frost/Nixon initially covers the behind-the-scenes negotiations and the resulting interviews in extraordinary depth. As a result of Gerald Ford’s pardon, Nixon was free from criminal prosecution. Nixon (played by Frank Langella, reprising his Tony Award-winning role here) sought to rehabilitate his public image and his legacy. David Frost (played by Michael Sheen), a talk show host best known for interviewing celebrities and not political figures, saw a financial and professional opportunity to interview Nixon one-on-one for television. Frost conducted the interviews over 12 days and 28 hours. They were broadcast in edited form as four, 90-minute segments dedicated to Nixon’s foreign policy, his domestic policy, his biography, and Watergate, respectively. Each segment explored various aspects of Nixon’s presidency, culminating with a frank discussion Watergate and the ignoble end of Nixon’s presidency. More than 45 million viewers watched the first episode.
"Oscar-worthy performances and a sympathetic portrayal of failure."
While Frost and Nixon and the interviews are understandably the central focus of a film titled Frost/Nixon, the parts played by lesser known, but still important, players in the Frost and the Nixon camps also receive screen time. Nixon hesitates to accept Frost’s initial offer, but the offer of $600,000 and 10% of any profits his literary agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), extracts from Frost, proves to be too generous to turn down, as is, of course, the opportunity for Nixon to begin the rehabilitation of his public image and the restoration of his reputation. Nixon and his post-presidential chief-of-staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), also see Frost as an “easy” interviewer they can manipulate easily. As Frost encounters difficulty in financing the interviews, he’s forced to put up his own money. Along with his producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Frost hires James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to dig up information on Nixon and his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
As with any play-to-film adaptation, the key challenge for Ron Howard and Peter Morgan was to “open up” Frost/Nixon, to make it less like a play and give it a more visual, cinematic look and feel. With the focus primarily on sit-down interviews between Frost and Nixon, Howard’s stylistic choices were, by necessity, limited (e.g., changing camera angles, tempo-changing edits, subtle camera moves, and cross-cutting with action elsewhere). While Howard and, by extension, Frost/Nixon, doesn’t manage to escape the “filmed play” feeling, the riveting performances and engrossing verbal duel will help audiences, however temporarily, to ignore Frost/Nixon’s limitations as a standalone film rather than a transcription of the stage play into a more permanent medium.Whatever its limitations, "Frost/Nixon" is never less than engrossing, due, in no small part, to Frank Langella and Michael Sheen’s performances. Langella doesn’t so much imitate Nixon as embody him. The hunched shoulders, the awkward body language, and the slurred speech pattern are all there, but they’re not “perfect” imitations of the former president. Langella embodies Nixon’s tortured inner life so thoroughly that it almost seems like Langella’s channeling the late president’s ghost. He isn’t, of course, but it’s a testament to a powerful, caricature-free performance. Michael Sheen depicts Frost as self-willed success and radical self-doubter. Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt acquit themselves well in pivotal roles as does Rebecca Hall in the usually thankless role of Frost’s girlfriend.
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originally posted: 12/12/08 03:33:12