If you like chess – if you like puzzles – if you like intellectual challenges and cerebral tests of will – go see Frost/Nixon. Now. Tomorrow at the latest. Yesterday if possible.
It’s a small indicator of the success of the “Nixon Interviews” that the only thing I ever knew about David Frost was that he was the one who conducted them. It’s taken Ron Howard’s latest movie, Frost/Nixon, to educate me on where Frost came from before those interviews, and what exactly was involved in producing them. Not to mention how dramatic and earth shattering they really were.
But the movie – like Peter Morgan’s original stage play in London, England – couldn’t work without the actors who portrayed the title characters both onstage and in the film.
Frank Langella is Richard Nixon, perhaps not in looks, but in his portrayal of the man’s attitudes and beliefs, his inner fight and insecurities, and, in the end, his loneliness and weary defeat. Michael Sheen sweeps us along with the bright, charismatic David Frost, portraying both his optimism and self-doubt, and dramatically clinching the moment when Frost’s own intelligence and intensity clashes with Nixon’s, producing a result that no one ever expected.
The first few minutes of the movie rush by with the speed of a film trailer, as we dart between original footage of the hearings and events around Nixon’s resignation, and the initial manoeuvrings as Frost conceives the idea of doing the interviews. Even when we enter a more “real-time” flow, the film has a slight documentary feel: the characters of John Birt (Frost’s producer) and Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. (the American researchers who joined Frost’s team) are periodically interjected as interviewees, looking back on the process.
The film itself occasionally has a slight “grainy” quality, as though we really are watching older footage from the years when colour television had just been introduced. While this means that sometimes the colours are a little garish (or is that just the 70s clothes??), paradoxically this “graininess” betrays the faces of the characters in all their gritty reality. Every pore and every line around the eyes and mouth stand out. Especially in the close-ups.
Which was part of what both writer Peter Morgan and director/producer Ron Howard wanted to demonstrate: that these interviews were as much about making or breaking careers through the visual power of television as they were about the clash of intellects and will. Langella and Sheen embody both of these ideas as they use those close-ups, bringing this clash vividly to life with the merest flicker of a worried eye, the turn of an evasive head, or the faint upturn of a triumphant lip.
Viewers who are deeply into action movies won’t enjoy this film. And yet, after all, they might. Because the movie portrays a duel, perhaps a symbolic duel to the death. And as the suspense builds to the moment when Frost finally “gets” Nixon, even the most action-addicted might find themselves pumping a fist in the air and hissing, “Yes!”