Frost/Nixon explores the seductiveness of public power, be it for political prestige or just general celebrity. It brings to the screen an American drama of criminal error, ethical offense and misjudgment in the executive branch. Both the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century—our decade—are at stake in Peter Morgan’s screenplay, where presidential abuse of power and a national longing for acknowledgment are the twin focal themes.
It’s obvious that Morgan took pains to craft an analogy between the figures of David Frost and Richard Nixon, whose fame and reputations had declined by the time of the 1977 interviews. During this time, Nixon was famously in exile in San Clemente, Calif.—his own St. Helens, which he, like Napoleon, would never really be able to leave. Likewise, Frost, a man whose admirable smoke-and-mirrors financing and behind-the-scenes maneuvers more than qualified him as a Nixon CReeP operative, was equally in celebrity eclipse after the cancellation of shows, the loss of his American citizenship and—horror of horrors—the accompanying loss of his mojo at Sardi’s, New York City’s restaurant du jour for the 1970s glitterati.
Michael Sheen of Dirty, Filthy Love and The Queen plays Frost in the way that’s earned him honors at the British Academy Film and Television Awards (BAFTA). He specializes in playing the male ingénue who contains insightful depth and untested mettle. To paraphrase George Balanchine, Sheen’s Frost is initially a kind of “cloud in trousers,” which means that eventually his light confectionary cover is scraped away to reveal vast reserves of intellect and nerve. This transformation allows the television personality to do battle with Nixon, one of the most formidable—albeit corrupt and tragic—figures of 20th century. And, this isn’t just anybody’s incarnation of Nixon—it’s Frank Langella’s Nixon, a Lazarus-like miracle of acting and resurrection.
Without crossing into parody, Langella reproduces enough of the well-known Nixonian physicality and cadence to animate the 37th president of the United States, while creating a performance that is much deeper and more profound than mere representation. Langella’s capacity to inhabit the disgraced, proud, guilt-ridden Nixon is particularly apparent in the tight close-ups near the end of the film when Frost brings Nixon to the confessional. The range of emotions that Langella allows to play across his face is stunning. One brief shot in extreme close-up shows all the puzzling complexity of Nixon, whose intelligence and paranoia, clarity of thought and ethical vacancy, personal isolation and national centrality all mingled to create a political agent who ultimately could only do as he did. A longtime stage and screen actor whose earlier moment in the limelight came with his turn as the title character in Edward Gorey’s 1977 production of Dracula, Langella offers what can without exaggeration be called the performance of a lifetime.
Langella and Sheen benefit from a strong ensemble—Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfayden. And though Rebecca Hall and Patty McCormack are criminally underutilized, it’s the acting that carries the film.
Ron Howard’s direction, however, proves unremarkable since he seems incapable of making any meaning out of the clash between Frost and Nixon that goes beyond the ambit of the pair themselves. They remain throughout the film two men locked in self-identified combat, using the television as a weapon to weld the viewing audience to their personal vision of themselves and their public role. What Nixon meant for the nation and the world is weakly explored in the characters of journalists Bob Zelnick (Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Rockwell), but not angled as the central preoccupation of the film. And the brief, unremarkable montage of 1970s television equipment—shots of cameras, red lights and sound boards—ultimately falls flat in its attempt to make a statement about the media’s role in identifying the “cancer” at the heart of the presidency.
One wonders what Frost/Nixon might have been in the hands of a less wooden and more unconventional director. The film, nonetheless, is more than safe as it is thanks to its cast. They offer at least a compelling record of historical characters who helped distinguish one of the most important chapters in American history.
Frost/Nixon is currently screening at the Carmike 10.