Frost/Nixon Review

(3.5 STARS)

In my review of All the President’s Men, I said I think I’m inclined to love pretty much any film about Nixon and the Watergate scandal. It’s a larger-than-life moment in American history that’s ripe for dramatization. Such is what happened with Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” an adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play of the story behind the famous post-Watergate interview of President Nixon by British talk show host David Frost. It’s a fascinating story made all the more better by two exceptional performances from actors Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. At times, the film is a little too metaphorical (the boxing match parallels are a bit much), but it’s still very gripping and very entertaining.

The film is told as a faux-documentary with all the secondary players detailing their experiences with Frost (Sheen), Nixon (Langella), and the interview process. After resigning, Nixon retreats from public life. He wants to get back to the rat race, but his inability to admit he was wrong leaves an incredibly sour taste in the public’s mouth. But Frost presents him with an opportunity: Tell his side of the story (and be paid quite a bit for it). Nixon’s people tell the former President that Frost doesn’t have the journalistic heft or the desire to probe too deeply. He just wants exposure. But Frost and his researchers have something different in mind. They want to give Americans the admission of guilt and the apology they deserve.

The stakes are inherently dramatic, which means the film can’t really miss. Both men have everything on the line, so the stakes are certainly high. I took issue slightly with how much the boxing metaphor is pushed on us (such as the scene during which both men retreat to their corners during a taping break for advice from their advisers. The parallels are obvious; the filmmakers didn’t need to hammer it home so forcefully.

That being said, I had few, if any, other quibbles with the film. There really is a lot to admire here. The acting is especially good. Langella was nominated for an Oscar for his work. He doesn’t look much like Nixon, but he does an uncanny job inhabiting the former President. He also gives us a peak at what’s underneath the politics. Langella’s Nixon is a man who craves the limelight and needs approval. Sheen’s Frost is similar in many ways. He does the interviews because he lost his New York talk show and desperately wants success in America. He’s already in the limelight—he’s got successful shows in England and Australia—but the next level is calling him. Sheen’s performance often gets overshadowed by Langella’s showier work, but it’s also quite good.

The film’s direction is unmemorable; the writing isn’t spectacular. The film doesn’t even raise any bigger points. It just tells a fascinating story very well. How can you not be transfixed by Watergate? Maybe it’s just the journalist in me, but the tale of a politician’s quest for power and ultimate downfall is enough to make even a poorly made film exciting. And if you have a competently made one like this, it becomes great.

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