Richard Nixon remains the only President of the United States to ever resign from office. The Watergate break in and cover up were a black eye to American politics. The FBI and Senate Committee on Watergate revealed charges of “campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins, improper tax audits, illegal wiretapping on a massive scale, and a secret slush fund laundered in Mexico to pay those who conducted these operations.” The achievements of the Nixon Presidency are largely overlooked. His legacy is Watergate. That’s impressive for a guy who ended the Vietnam War.
Post-resignation, Nixon (Frank Langella) is reduced to rambling anecdotes in hotel ballrooms, being paid to give speeches that make him sound like a senile old codger. He was given a full pardon by President Gerald Ford. He did not have to stand trial and escaped any responsibility for his role in the crimes. In order to rebuild his reputation, Nixon agrees to an interview with a British talk show host named David Frost (Michael Sheen) because he is getting a big paycheck and also because he is told he is “simply not on your intellectual level.” Frost is eager and charismatic and his desire to interview Nixon is purely for the ratings bonanza it would surely garner. This puts him at odds with his two researchers (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) who want to use the interview to give Nixon the trial he never had. Frost just thinks it will make for great television.
Ron Howard’s feverishly paced FROST/NIXON is the story of the extensive interview sessions between the two men. Nixon did not know the questions ahead of time and had no control over the editing process or the finished product. Though the boxing metaphor is a bit overused in the film, FROST/NIXON chronicles the verbal jousting between the disgraced President and the over-his-head TV personality. It provides a rare glimpse at an interview in which a politician is held accountable for their actions.
Frank Langella bares little resemblance to Richard Nixon but he delivers a strong performance. He embodies Nixon, even when his growl gets a bit silly. I was more impressed by the performance of Michael Sheen, who gives a layered performance as Frost. Sheen makes Frost likable, infuriating, charming and dim. Watch his eyes during the early rounds of the interviews when Nixon is dominating him. The squirming, the quivering hands and the mannerisms. For the most part, Frost is cavalier in regards to the interview. Fortunately for him, he had the truth on his side, which gave Nixon only so much wiggle room.
Ron Howard is known for his Academy fare and FROST/NIXON will surely contend for year-end awards. Though his films don’t typically appeal to me, FROST/NIXON is one of his best. There are times when the film feels over-directed (we don’t need to be told several times that Frost is “in this for all he’s got.” We know.) but the quick pace of the film and the level of performances elevate it above a standard biopic. Supporting performances all around are strong including Platt and Rockwell, but I did find Kevin Bacon to be a bit much as a loyal Nixon confidant. Watch Bacon tilt his head in delight as Nixon plays the piano.
For all the minor quibbles, FROST/NIXON is great entertainment and one of the best films of the year. The film does not excuse Nixon’s actions but it doesn’t demonize him either. The interviews served as a catharsis for Nixon, who was able to show his remorse and regret for disappointing the American people. However, he had to be reprimanded at the same time for committing crimes while serving in the highest office in the nation. The DVDs of the actual interviews between Frost and Nixon were recently released. Here’s a clip: