Frost/Nixon (2008)

Drama, History
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell
A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon.
Frost/Nixon is weighty and eloquent; a cross between a boxing match and a ballet with Oscar worthy performances.
  • Universal Pictures Company:
  • R Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 23 Jan 2009 Released:
  • 21 Apr 2009 DVD Release:
  • $18.6M Box office:

All subtitles:

Trailer:

Great cast, excellent screenplay5/10
The Frost/Nixon interviews are fascinating. Not every second of them, especially not when Nixon rambles on and on, avoiding questions by offering anecdotes in place of answers. Yet, they are an invaluable historical document, which allow us the rare privilege of seeing a major politician as a human being and nothing else. As interesting as the interviews themselves is the lead-up to them, the circumstances surrounding them, and the characters involved, particularly Frost and Nixon, of course. One could say that you only need to watch the actual footage, but there's ample room for a great dramatization, but it needed an even-handed approach, and certainly needed no political preaching.

I have a personal dislike for Ron Howard as a director, a result of my sensibilities mainly, I suspect. Howard strikes me as a particularly heavy-handed, didactic director who has wasted many great concepts on mediocre films (out of 18 films I've seen by him, I only genuinely liked "Apollo 13". I was expecting the worst with "Frost/Nixon", but instead was met with one of the most entertaining films in a while, and a remarkably well-acted, even-handed, quality character study. I suppose I should have been prepared for a quality screenplay given the success of this Peter Morgan play in New York and London, but I was hardly expecting something this good. It's glib, funny, well-paced, expertly-structured, clever, observant, and intelligent. It creates a fascinating Nixon, played brilliantly by the great Frank Langella, though this is not quite up there with the likes of Oliver Stone's sadly under-appreciated "Nixon" or Robert Altman's endlessly fascinating "Secret Honor". The film is almost surprisingly well-directed, although there is a bit of the old TV trick of shaking the camera a bit, panning too often, to give the illusion of motion and energy when there's really just people in a room talking. The conversation's interesting enough, there's no need for that. Oh well, I suppose I am nitpicking.

As far as Nixon movies go this is lightweight entertainment with plenty of comic moments largely leading up to two or three scenes of real human vulnerability. Aside from these scenes (which are truly, truly excellent), Peter Morgan conceives the meeting as something of a chess match with the unpredictability of a boxing match. To use J. Hoberman's words 'a prize fight between two comeback-hungry veterans, only one of whom could win'. On paper this could have been very heavy on amateur psychoanalysis and low on entertainment value but Morgan and I suppose Howard as well are clever enough to have some fun with the idea. This is not a criticism at all, the film has moments of surprisingly real depth and intellectualism, but overall the nature of the script works in its favor, makes those scenes more interesting, more ultimately rewarding.

"Frost/Nixon" is an entertaining, exciting film, around as populist as I expected but in a very different way. This is the sort of writing we don't see enough of, particularly not in today's films. It's vaguely reminiscent of a particularly good BBC television drama. The cast is certainly good enough for that. Langella and Michael Sheen are outstanding, both manage to accurately portray the real-life men they are portraying while still adding some characterization and mannerisms of their own. Langella's Tony-award winning performance might be up for Oscar consideration soon, but Sheen's Frost almost upstages him at times. No heavy-handedness, no political 'messages', just a fun, clever script and a great cast in a well-made film.
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.
Langella's Nixon8/10
A remarkable performance by Frank Langella as Richard Nixon transforms this unexpected Ron Howard film into a gripping and unforgettable experience. The behind the scenes of the famous David Frost, Richard Nixon interviews pale in comparison to the compelling sight of Nixon/Langella thinking. It was difficult to forget that Michael Sheen was not Tony Blair but David Frost. Sheen's Frost is an entertaining foil to Langella's somber,sad, desolate portrait of the former president. Ron Howard finds a winning pace giving the true tale a fictional slant. Unfortunately I never saw the stage production and the film never betrays its theatrical origins. In a bizarre sort of way this is Ron Howard's most cinematic film. I highly recommend it.
Howard redeems himself with a truly compelling film that leaves its theatrical roots behind9/10
It is a testament to Peter Morgan's humility and skill as a writer and Ron Howard's ability to take a based on real events story to which the outcome is widely known and create a compelling "what will happen" drama (as he did with Apollo 13) that Frost/Nixon succeeds as a film.

This is a film based on a play that neither felt trapped in staginess nor weakly expanded with just the stage dialogue delivered exactly but in a variety of outdoor locales. I have to give Peter Morgan a lot of credit here. I saw the play in London and wondered throughout production of the film how they would escape its theatricality. Many recent films from plays like Proof, Closer, The Producers, have failed to throw off the shackles of stage feel. Not that all bad films, many served as a good way to see the play if you hadn't had the chance, but they weren't necessarily compelling films in their own right. What is so impressive about Morgan's work here is that in adapting his own play he has not been precious, he has not tried to enforce his already successful stage-play onto a film director – he has wholly reworked it from beginning to end and yet retained all the gravity and drama that the play elicited. If you saw the play everything key is here and yet you can feel the difference – the pacing is changed, the power achieved in different ways.

For this Howard also deserves credit. To have filmed the play as it was would have been disastrous on film – one long two-hander scene after another, duelling narrators. And given the reverence the play has enjoyed a less experienced director could have fallen into this trap or that of simply changing the settings, but Howard knows when we need quick cuts, when a long drawn out piece that worked on stage needs to be reduced to a couple of lines and a post-scene reaction, and when he needs to hold with a scene and let it play between the two leads. This happens in several impressive moments in the latter half of the film.

For some this might constitute the films biggest flaw however. Morgan and Howard can't escape the fact that in the final stages of the film it is the head-to-head scenes of Frost and Nixon that are key and they must stay with them more. This is necessary, but it sadly means that the supporting players, so well established and broadened out to expand the scope in the first half, fall be the wayside. A superb Toby Jones as Irving 'Swifty' Lazar, Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt and always reliable Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick all but disappear and only Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell play any significant role beyond the two leads in the final stages. This is a shame. It may best serve the story creating the sense of claustrophobia necessary to keep you gripped but it does feel like a film of two halves because of it and it noticeable.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are superb, as they were on stage, and Langella will take a lot of beating for the Oscar this year. There are many moments here when I was so involved I forgot I wasn't watching the real Nixon. It's not that he looks that like Nixon but he is so real you believe it completely and have to remind yourself you're watching an actor.

Platt is reliably Platt. Bacon is also his typically understated solid presence doing a lot with little. Toby Jones is fantastic in a small role – instantly memorable; and Rebecca Hall builds on a series of strong performances. But in the supporting cast it is Rockwell that stands out. Sure, he has the most to do but he is completely in this role, he manages to sink into the role which is something he rarely does. He matches the skill he showed in Lawn Dogs and Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind here and it is great to see him back at his best.

I thoroughly recommend this film.
Not to be missed! Vey rewarding9/10
I had the pleasure of watching this gripping movie at the opening night of the British Film festival. Ron Howard's direction and story telling ability are in top form with this effort. From the very first scene a carefully crafted and very credible 70s's atmosphere sets a solid stage for the superbly cast film and quickly transports the viewer into the political jungle that was "Tricky Dickey's" playground.

The acting duo of Frank Langella & Micheal Sheen (Nixon & Frost) are set on a collision course that finds two deeply passionate personalities at the mercy of their insatiable desires. Both actor's portrayals are a study of affectation and body language, pleasurably accurate and yet not simply an impersonation. Indeed, the film never strays from the distinct Howard format that breathes so much life (read intimacy) into this familiar and yet mysterious relationship that exists for so many people who lived through the exceptional event.

Make no mistake, this is by no means a two man show, quite the contrary. In fact, the wealth of supporting roles is perhaps the finest feature of this production. Bacon's devoted and stalwart marine practically glints of gun metal and polished shoe leather. The trio of Gould, Platt and Rockwell portray effortlessly the roles of the men who, brick by brick, constructed the platform from which Frost so successfully and serendipitously elicited one of the greatest unspoken confessions of all time. Rebecca Hall is delicious and demure, constantly filling scenes with her elegant presence.

Perhaps the richest praise should be reserved for Peter Morgan, who has, without question, penned a truly captivating and insightful story that delivers not only a satisfying comprehension of a complex time in US history, but captures a generation's struggle to come to terms with the frailty of leadership that still echoes today.

Not to be missed, this film can be enjoyed on multiple levels and will undoubtedly be regarded as seminal for it's engrossing insight and expert depiction.