Howard does not disgrace himself, and the play works better as a film.8/10
It didn't seem so in the run-up to the event, but British talk show host/interviewer David Frost's 1977 series of four on screen encounters with the disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon was great, historic television. This movie directed by Ron Howard successfully transfers the Peter Morgan play about the event to the big screen. Arguably, the story belonged here all along. The paraphernalia of a Hollywood production enables Howard to gussy up this claustrophobic event with such acoutrements as the luxury suite of a 747, Nixon's "smart" seaside villa La Casa Pacifica at San Clemente, and the impressive, downright menacing sight of a presidential motorcade. As the train of glittering, dark limos approach the Nixon friend's house where the interviews were shot it feels like a battalion of tanks; and Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), the British socialite Frost chats up on the plane and makes his consort for the duration of the exploit seems the more slinky and glamorous for emerging from a posh airplane rather than a bare stage. Lighting tricks and artful camera angles help make Frank Langella morph more successfully into Nixon than his physicality would otherwise permit. Michael Sheen as Frost already seems to look and sound like his character, and the "monkey suit" blue blazer outfits add the final touch. His task is easier; we don't know so well or care so much what Frost was like. In the film version, both performances take on more nuance. Langella's performance on camera brims of with dyspeptic melancholy, aggression, and self-pity; Michael Sheen's as frost glitters with a muted, hysterical cheer mixing infantilism and fear. The extra visuals of a film also help to show Nixon's comfort and loneliness and Frost's sleazy playboy side.
It's important that the fakery should work well, because the movie must provide lots of closeups that those in the balcony didn't see. So long as it works, the feeling of TV interviews is better achieved in the film, and the actors don't have to yell. The camera, sometimes annoyingly jerky, but in the best moments simply direct and relentless, does their yelling for them.
So I'm saying this is a winner. Peter Morgan after all did the screenplay, and he's no stranger to such efforts--notable examples of his film writing are in The Last King of Scotland and The Queen; a rather less notable one is The Other Boleyn Girl. The flaws are simply in the events. For three of the interview parts, till it gets to Watergate in the fourth, Nixon seems to be winning. Despite a dramatic intervention by Nixon support staffer Col Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) to prevent an abject breakdown, Nixon does buckle under in part four. But his admissions still remain in the realm of generality, and there is the question: does anything said on TV really matter? The audience for a West End or Broadway play is a bit different from the popcorn crowd and how appealing this film will be to the mainstream is uncertain. Needless to say it's all talk and minimal action. For students of contemporary American history nonetheless the topic is thrilling. Frost used his own money for down payments. In need of cash and highly mercenary, Nixon used the celebrity agent Swiftie Lazar (Toby Jones) to get $600,000 for the interviews. Frost lost sponsors and the US networks refused to come aboard. He made down payments from his own funds and borrowed. He hired two journalists, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell), to do support research. Reston was a firebrand opponent of Nixon. He refused to participate unless there was a commitment to shame Nixon and get him to admit he did wrong in Watergate and betrayed the country's trust.
The issue was whether Frost had the depth to tackle a job like this. He wanted a Watergate confession too, but he let Nicon play him with small talk (despite the man's claim that he was no good at it) and temporize with lengthy self-serving reminiscences that blunted most of Frost's pointed questions. This is where Zelick and especially Reston come in to give a sense of urgency. Again the film excels where the play couldn't in showing Nixon's walk out to his car after each encounter, jubilant at first, pathetic at the end.
Ultimately both in the play and the film, Frost's victory seems a hollow one, of little significance to morality or history. This is above all a story about television. In that arena, this was a coup. and there is great drama in how close Frost's project came to failing. As the encounters got under way, he was losing every sponsor, and later he lost his Australian show, having some time earlier lost his American one. The film tells us they all came back, and then some. Frost never really seems to have reentered the world of American television, but he has had many projects in England and is said now to be "worth £20 million," with a live weekly current affairs program on Al Jazeera English. Nixon is dead, and though he may have won three rounds out of four in the Frost interviews, his legacy is tainted.
The show belongs to Sheen and Langella, but Bacon is excellent as the stiff, loyal Col. Brennan, and Sam Rockwell strong in an unusually serious role for him. As Nixon's somewhat lost wife Pat, the child star of The Bad Seed Patty McCormack is touching. There are lots of other actors, far more than in the stage production, and the best thing is they don't get in the way. San Clemente also plays a significant role. The brightness and beauty of Nixon's ocean-side estate helps dramatize his depression by contrast. There were doubts about putting Howard in charge of the screen version, but they were groundless.