Maybe it’s a side-effect of just watching The Fighter, but the title Frost/Nixon makes this film sound more like a prize fight. The comparison is not wholly inappropriate. David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a media bantamweight trying to move up in class while Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) was a political heavyweight looking for an easy tune-up for his eventual rehabilitation from the Watergate scandal.
The movie opens with a brief but informative Cliff’s Notes recap of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. Almost immediately, Frost is angling for an interview with the fallen president, but his attention is focused more on the ratings numbers it would generate than on any journalistic coup. His New York-based talk show has been cancelled and, although he is still on the air in the UK and Australia, he is driven to get back into the American market.
No one takes Frost seriously, especially not the Nixon camp. Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), the ex-president’s literary agent is impressed, however, with the amount of money that Frost is offering, so for the sum of $600,000, most of it out of Frost’s own pocket, the deal is made for the interview to take place. Unfortunately, none of the major networks want any piece of this interview. They profess to be outraged by the idea of “checkbook journalism,” but they might also be a tad miffed that Frost, an outsider, got there before they did.
So Frost takes the rather bold, some might say financially suicidal, step of syndicating the interview himself. His producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), is worried that Frost might be a bit overmatched by Nixon and his team, which includes Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) as well as the President’s imposing chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Birt recruits journalists Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr (Sam Rockwell). Reston is a stridently anti-Nixon author who feels that Ford’s pardon cheated the American people out of a real trial for Nixon. He sees these interviews as a last chance to hear an admission of guilt and contrition from a disgraced president who dishonored his office.
I'm saying that when the President does it, it's not illegal.
Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play, Ron Howard’s film is a reasonably factual account of the run-up to the interviews, but both play and film veer perceptibly from the record after the two men sit down for the cameras. The final interview was hardly the twelfth-round knock out by a boxer behind on points that it appears to be in the film. Nixon’s real expression of regret was as much a product of Brennan’s advice as it was Frost questions. The end result was a bit more pro wrestling and less “Thrilla in Manilla.”
But, as drama, Frost/Nixon is a marvellous showcase for the talents of the two actors in the lead roles. Michael Sheen is undetectable under Frost’s late-70s hairstyles and showbiz smiles. His David Frost is often mostly surface, but an ambitious and later vulnerable human being manages to show through. Frank Langella, however, makes Richard Nixon his own, giving us a far more credible picture than the hunchbacked troll that Oliver Stone portrayed in his lesser biopic of the man. By the end of the film, Langella seems to go beyond mere performance and has inhabited the skin of one of the most famous and disliked persons of the 20th century.
It’s good that the central figures are so well-portrayed, because by and large, the supporting characters never seem to emerge as full-blooded individuals. Sam Rockwell does a good job as Reston, given voice to a particularly sharp-edged version of the outrage a lot of people felt over Nixon’s abuses of his office. Frost/Nixon is far from the definitive account of this period in history. All the President’s Men is a much more accomplished film on that score. As drama and cinema, however, Ron Howard’s film is an entertaining re-introduction to the players involved. If it re-awakens a greater degree of interest in the Watergate saga, then I suppose it could be said to have served a higher purpose than mere entertainment.