Frost/Nixon is, at first sight, a film that lacks compulsion. It’s about a series of interviews between a British television presenter and a disgraced American president that took place over thirty years ago. They talk a lot, so it's dialogue-heavy and light on action. Worse, it’s directed by the deeply unfashionable Ron Howard, who has made a career pumping ham-scented sludge through the Hollywood sausage machine.

Despite all that, Frost/Nixon is brilliant. It’s brilliant because it is superbly acted, vibrantly written and, in the post-Bush era, profoundly evocative. It pits a not-so-smart man against a very smart man in a kind of intellectual Rocky, a battle of wits so tense and prolonged it becomes as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

In one corner is David Frost (Michael Sheen), who, as the film opens, is a media jack of all trades, as comfortable swapping show-business stories on a chat show as he is presenting a tacky quiz. With a jet-set lifestyle, glamorous girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) and a penchant for flash suits, he exudes imperturbable self-confidence, an assurance that drives his desire to do something important. In the other corner is Richard Milhous Nixon (Frank Langella), who is shown in the opening credits resigning the presidency in disgrace following the Watergate scandal in 1974. Reviled in his own country, his reputation in tatters, the scowling, taciturn Nixon is the polar opposite of Frost’s toothy, smiling gadfly.

What brings them together, three years later, at Nixon’s house in California, is the distillation of modern life; celebrity and money. Nixon, goaded by his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), wants the cash. Frost knows that the interview will make him internationally famous. Both men bring seconds to the bout. Nixon is chaperoned by his assistant Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a former marine who thinks the velvet-clad Frost is a lightweight. Frost, all too aware of his own weightlessness, brings his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) and two American research journalists (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) who want to “give Nixon the trial he never had”.

The first half of the film is spent building the ring. The second half is the bout itself. At first, Frost cannot land a punch, Nixon is too smart for him, waffling in an avuncular manner about the Chinese. But the fight lasts more than one round. As he has done with Tony Blair (twice), Sheen again takes on a real-life character, imbuing Frost with a ferocious energy and determination even as he flounders in the face of his greatest challenge. Langella is even better. Having already won a Tony for his performance on Broadway, chances are he will repeat the trick at the Oscars next month.

It is the faintly delirious quality of the two central performances that make this film so involving and so memorable. These are actors at the top of their game, all Ron Howard has to do is make sure the lights are on and the camera is in focus. This, luckily, is within his capabilities and even better, he resists the temptation to add anything resembling a bell or a whistle to Peter Morgan’s taut, tense script, adapted from his own stage play. This is the best film of Howard’s career, a million miles away from the po-faced shenanigans of The Da Vinci Code or the cod psychologies of A Beautiful Mind. Morgan writes beautiful dialogue but more than that, as he showed with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, he has a special talent for exploring what he calls in the press notes “the twilight between historical fact and fiction”.


EW said...

Hello, I've stumbled here (far, far too late, but here I am at last) from Little Pinch's blog.

Love your reviews.

I am a journalist and movie fan, you are doing my dream job **ew salutes in rl**

How did you get into it? Do you get to go to big premiers?

sophomorecritic said...

i would like to see one blogger or critic that doesn't use the boxing match metaphor in their frost/nixon review. it's copied directly from the marketing materials, is that a concern you had when writing the review?

John said...

Hi Sophomore

I used the boxing metaphor because thats genuinely what the film feels like. I haven't read any other opinions on F/N, so I'll have to take your word on it's popularity as a critical device.

So no, I wasn't concerned. Before now.

I didn't read any marketing materials for the film. Like most critics of my acquaintance, I make it my business to avoid them. I read up on Peter Morgan because I didn't know much about him. I liked the way he described what he goes looking for when adapting history into dramatic fiction, so I quoted the "twilight" line. I think I found it on his wikipedia page.

It's worth saying that those whose job it is to sell films and those whose job it is to pass judgement on them rarely use the same language or share the same opinions.

F/N may be one of those rare occassions where both sides come to the same conclusion, which I would prefer to think is a testament to the strength of Morgan's position and the clarity of his expression than any element of laziness or dull thinking on my part.

Hi EW, and welcome. Thanks for the kind words. To answer your questions; I fell into the job and yes, I go to the occassional premiere, when invited.

sophomorecritic said...

It's just an observation I've had that every review compares it to a boxing movie. It's not like the first thing that jumps out at you is "this is boxing for the movie screen!" I mentioned how it was like a sports film in my review, but how about tennis as a metaphor? There are more parrallels to that, since if you lob a shot, you're setting up the opponent to slam it down on you, and that's what Sheen was doing in the first 3 interviews.

It's intereseting that so many reviewers have used that metaphor and you did say you saw the press notes.

Hey, I wonder if you might include me in your blog roll, i'd be happy to do the same.