‘Frost/Nixon’ is simply spectacular

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in ‘Frost/Nixon’

In the 219 years since George Washington became the first President of the United States, only one President has ever resigned. Richard Milhous Nixon, the nation’s 37th President, stepped down in the wake of the Watergate scandal on August 9, 1974. The history of what happened during the Watergate break-in and its aftermath has been well-documented in prior films such as All the President’s Men, Nixon and the television miniseries Blind Ambition.

Not quite three years hence, British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) came up with the idea of interviewing the former president on television.  It took a large sum of money but eventually Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) agreed to the interviews.  Those interviews and the process that led up to them are the body and soul of the brilliant Frost/Nixon from director Ron Howard. Based on a stage play written by Peter Morgan, who also penned the screenplay, Frost/Nixon also stars Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s post presidency Chief of Staff, Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick.

This terrific cast, given just the right directorial tone from Howard, step up and perform brilliantly in this account of the events that led up to the taped interviews and the interviews themselves. Langella and Sheen do fine jobs of portraying the real-life characters as they were back then, doing credible jobs with accent and gesture. Langella’s work here rivals his incredible performance as the real-life William S. Paley in 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck. Kevin Bacon also delivers his typical strong performance as the former Marine and still hard-nosed Chief of Staff for the former Chief Executive.

Little time is spent on the events prior to Nixon’s resignation as it is accurately assumed that the viewing public knows this history well enough. Instead the focus is on the aftermath and how events cascaded in a way that led Frost to come up with the remarkable idea of interviewing Nixon himself because of the gigantic audience it would draw. It quite accurately portrays Frost as being in somewhat of a career low and shows Nixon and his advisors considering him to be nowhere near the intellectual equal of the former President. They all thought Nixon would have Frost for a snack once the deal was struck. The avarice of the former President is evident by how quickly he jumps at the deal, which ultimately turns out to be for $600,000 of Frost’s own money.

Frank Langella and Kevin Bacon in ‘Frost/Nixon’

Frost did hire James Reston Jr. and Bob Zelnick to do research for the interviews with Nixon and much of the middle of the movie takes place showing the three of them, along with producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), holed up in a hotel.  They insisted on being fully prepped for the sessions with the man known to most of the public as “Tricky Dick.” The pressure of putting together the interview questions while trying to sell the series of interviews, all the while Frost’s own money being at risk, is almost palpable in the room as the men work frantically to accomplish their goals.

The best moments are in the interviews themselves, especially the final interview, where Nixon actually gave his cathartic confession, the closest he ever came to accepting blame for the fiasco that brought down his administration. But there are very few wasted moments at all in the movie, Howard finding the right touch to keep the audience focused on the action.

Oscar, take notice.

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