Note – because this is based on true events, and those events provide a context in which to evaluate this fictionalized interpretation, there are spoilers regarding the actual historical outcomes.
The idea of Richard Nixon being brought down because of a burglary and/or an attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee (and the subsequent cover up) is a lot like Al Capone being busted for tax evasion. Of the countless illegal and immoral deeds that Richard Nixon committed (countless politically based wiretaps, accepting illicit campaign contributions, engaging in harassment against political enemies and/or peaceful opposition groups, the bombing of Cambodia, etc), the crime that actually caused his downfall was a minor one in the grand scheme of things. Depending on your political persuasion, you may find Nixon’s misdeeds dwarfed by the follies of the Clinton years, the clumsiness of the Carter years, or the corruption of Reagan and W. Bush years. But there is something almost nostalgic about a time when citizens were actively outraged by shenanigans in the highest office, and partisan politics took a temporary backseat to do something about it.
“Frost/Nixon” is an adaptation of a stage play that details the build-up and production of four interviews between former president Richard M. Nixon and Australian television host David Frost in 1977. The interviews were quite important as they were the first to be conducted since Nixon resigned from the Oval Office. This was to be the first, and best, chance to theoretically heal the nation by getting Nixon to come clean about his criminal culpability. Would this lightweight showbiz interviewer be able to match wits with a master politician, or would be play an unwitting role in rehabilitating the image of the hated ex-president?
In a rare move, both of the original play’s leads reprise their roles for this Ron Howard-directed film version. Frank Langella once again portrays Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen again takes on David Frost. Langella won a Tony in 2007 for the stage version, and he has a pretty solid shot at a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this film version. While Richard Nixon is basically a supporting role (he’s barely in the first half of the picture), it’s the kind of flashy, pomp-and-circumstance role that the Academy loves to honor, especially when delivered by older veterans who haven’t really had the chance to shine over the years (let’s face it, most of Frank Langella’s fan base knows him as “the guy who played Skeletor”).
The rest of the cast shines just as brightly. Michael Sheen has the difficult task of keeping Frost sympathetic while he consistently underestimates the demands of the assignment he has given himself. However, the most entertaining beats involve Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt. Rockwell in particular excels as anti-Nixon historian James Reston Jr., who desperately wants to use this interview to “give Nixon the trial he never got.” Oliver Platt is less over dramatic as ABC news honcho Bill Zelnick, but it’s always a joy to watch him play subtly sarcastic, intelligent men of authority (he single-handedly saved “The West Wing” by making the protracted MS cover-up storyline bearable).
But, alas, while the film is exceptionally acted and the story is usually entertaining, the sledgehammer attempt to equate politics and journalism with a sporting competition (such as a boxing match) slowly turns the film into something resembling a “Rocky” sequel. We have the initial training montage (research and practice interviews), the initial defeat (the first days of interviews), followed by the rehabilitation and potential for climactic redemption. Heck, we even have the equivalent of the late-night cramming session, where the lead character finally gets motivated and tries to learn a whole administration’s history in a single night. I can’t speak for the play, but if Ron Howard wanted to make a political drama into a underdog sports film, he would have been wise not to hit every cliché in the genre.
Not helping matters is the inclusion of a fictional late-night conversation between Nixon and Frost, which serves to give Langella the required “big scene” as well as give Nixon the chance to explain his entire character arc. Is the scene entertaining? Of course, but it feels like such a screenwriter’s crutch that it could only be justified as good drama if it actually happened. It may be the scene that will be used in various awards shows, but it’s the most artificial and phony bit in the whole film.
And, in the end, aside from historical anecdote, what is the long term consequence of Frost’s potential victory against Richard Nixon? If we are to view this film purely as an acting treat and a tidbit of little known history (behind the scenes of a major political interview), then it works as a solid entertainment, a fun glance at political theater in an age when the media was briefly riding high. But it fails to achieve any deeper meaning, and it fails to convince us that the interview had any implications beyond one man’s mea culpa (besides, in our society, nothing rehabilitates an image like a humbled apology). The legacy of Nixon is a complicated one (by today’s skewered standards, his politics would almost be considered center-left), that of a potentially great man brought down by paranoia and a need to both be admired and be feared by the people he felt loathed him. Other than some fine moments by Langella and some nice supporting turns by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and Kevin Bacon, “Frost/Nixon” fails to add anything of substance to the history that it portrays.