One sure sign that a movie "based on a true story" is great is when you know the outcome in advance but are riveted from start to finish anyway. Frost/Nixon - written by Peter Morgan, based on his own play - is a fine example of what I mean. The film recounts the story of how British journalist David Frost landed an interview with impeached President Richard Nixon and got him, for the first time ever, to acknowledge that he made mistakes and disappointed the American people during his time in office. Although what happened is familiar to anyone who lived during that time (or studied it in school), Morgan and director Ron Howard make you feel like you don't already know. They go deeper than mere historical accounts, choosing instead to focus on the personalities of the two main characters. This gives everything real weight and allows you to experience the story as if for the first time.
Michael Sheen (perhaps best known for playing another Brit, Tony Blair, in The Queen) stars as David Frost. Having found reasonable success in England and Australia, he longs to find it on the lucrative American airwaves. Seizing on an idea, he reaches out to Nixon's agent, the infamous Irving "Swifty" Lazar (Toby Jones), with a cash offer for a series of interviews. Given that Nixon (Frank Langella) has been reduced to speaking at business seminars in the mid-West, the offer seems appealing. Although some deride Frost for his "checkbook journalism," he sees a once-in-a-career opportunity.
Nixon, on the other hand, sees a chance for public redemption. Letting it be known that the interview should be no-holds-barred - and vowing himself to be a formidable adversary - the disgraced President sends a shiver of terror into Frost. To prepare, he brings in a staff, including journalist James Reston (Sam Rockwell), to help prepare questions. The idea is to give Nixon "the trial he never had." Reston, in particular, is gung ho. An avowed Nixon hater, he is determined to goad Frost into burying the former President.
Frost/Nixon does a superb job of showing the behind-the-scenes machinations that lead to the interviews. Frost, not exactly a powerhouse on these shores, fights network indifference to secure airtime. He also must deal with nervous sponsors and his subsequent need to personally fund the project when said sponsors get a little tetchy. Then there's Nixon himself, who drives a hard bargain, both financially and collaboratively. He's openly manipulative of the process, believing that by coming off well, it could potentially help to repair his image and improve his legacy.
And this, right here, is the genius of the film. Rather than just settling for a straightforward documentation of the events, Morgan and Howard spend a lot of time on the personal material. We get to know Frost, the entrepreneur, the playboy, the public personality. He needs this interview to work or else his career could effectively be over. Nixon, meanwhile, realizes that this is his one chance to explain himself and remove the taint that has covered his career. He confides to his aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) how badly he wants to look good in the public eye again. As the story progresses, we see that both men potentially have a lot to lose and a lot to gain. This is what completely sucks you in. The viewer is forced to empathize with both of them - to feel how much hangs in the balance.
It all builds to the interviews themselves, which, as shown here, are like a boxing match with much, much higher stakes. Nixon is determined to throw Frost off. (Right before going on camera, he asks, "Did you do any fornicating last night?") Frost initially has trouble maintaining the pace, allowing Nixon to give long, rambling answers that reveal nothing. Faced with the frustration of his staff - and a need to make the interviews work - he starts to find his inner toughness. Nixon senses it, and responds by being even more obstinate than before. Both men know that there can be only one winner in this. Either Nixon is shamed and Frost wins, or Frost wimps out and Nixon wins. It may consist of little more than two men sitting in chairs and talking, but the last half hour of Frost/Nixon is almost as exciting as a really good action movie.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen both do outstanding, Oscar-caliber work. Langella has the showier role, of course, but I hope Sheen isn't left out of awards season consideration. He has the ability to show you the wheels turning in Frost's mind. In every second of the picture, you feel the inner desperation and drive that motivates Frost. It's also worth mentioning that Langella plays a very human Nixon. The movie perhaps does not have sympathy for his presidency, but it certainly has sympathy for the man himself, who deep down knew that he'd screwed up badly. Nowhere is this more evident than in a show-stopping extended sequence in which Nixon (with a drink or three under his belt) makes a late night phone call to Frost before their final interview. Angry, remorseful, and perhaps a little depressed, he opens up privately about the anguish he feels. It's a remarkable scene. On the supporting level, the best performance comes from Sam Rockwell, whose impassioned hatred of Nixon nicely represents the anger many felt toward him at the time.
Frost/Nixon is a compelling recreation of real-life events, yet at its core, this is an intimate story. You can enjoy it on either level or, as I did, on both. The showdown between the journalist and the President has a lot of historical value, but even if history is only of minor interest to you, Frost/Nixon remains a great human tragedy about two men who meet on a televised battleground, knowing that it's do-or-die time.
( out of four)
Frost/Nixon is rated R for some language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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