Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Considering that Richard M. Nixon was in his first term as president of the United States of America when I was born, the interviews that he performed with talk show host David Frost, assuming my parents were watching them, aren’t that fresh in my mind. Thank goodness for Bryce Dallas’ dad, director Ron Howard, who has taken the stage play of this event written by Peter Morgan, and even lifted the actors from the stage play, as Frank Langella reprises Richard Nixon and actor Michael Sheen as David Frost in ‘Frost /Nixon’, a dramatic retelling of one of the more important events in the history of 20th Century America.

As we well know, or at least I hope we know, back in the early 70’s the Watergate scandal doomed the second term of Richard Nixon, forcing him to become the first Commander in Chief to have to resign his post. To call Richard Nixon reviled back then would be very generous, for very few people had a lot love for the former president. Then when his successor Gerald R. Ford gave Nixon a full presidential pardon, a large portion of the country felt betrayed and disillusioned. I may have only been around four or five at the time but I remember my usually reserved and eloquent uncle Mickey… errr… Dr. Gerald C. Horne PhD as he is known by the rest of the world actually using words I could understand since few of them had more than four letters. Nixon quitting wasn’t enough. They wanted him brought to trial, they wanted him to admit to his crimes and they wanted him to pay for his crimes.

Well that wasn’t going to happen, but here comes British talk show host David Frost who after observing Nixon on the news comes up with the bright idea that an in depth interview with Richard M. Nixon would be all the rage. At this time in his career Mr. Frost has all the cache of a national weatherman so I suppose this would be akin to Al Roker grilling George W. Bush on the failings of the War in Iraq. But even though

David Frost seemed more at home interviewing light weight celebrities, he convinced his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) that this was a good idea so it’s off to America to interview the defrocked president of the United States and sell it to the networks for a boatload of cash. In theory.

Along the way to the interviews Frost picks up a girlfriend to help in out in Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) and a pair of researchers who seriously doubt his ability to pull this off, at least in a way that they would find acceptable, in James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt). Frost promises Nixon a tidy sum for the interviews, most of it coming out his own pocket, but the networks decline to broadcast his interviews, and he can’t get any sponsors, so things are looking a little bleak. Even when the interviews do finally come to fruition Nixon and his people, specifically his right hand man Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), aren’t too terribly concerned since they are fairly certain that the lightweight Frost will be putty under the deep baritoned, and wicked intelligence of the man called known as Tricky Dick. And it looked as if that was exactly how the four days worth of interviews were going to play out… until history was made. How dramatic was that, huh?

One of the things I enjoy about these biographical movies such as this is doing a little research after I finish watching them to see what ‘really happened’ and what dramatic licenses the filmmakers took to bring their version of history to the screen. There was a very good interview with Caroline Cushing, who went on to become the editor of Vanity Fair or something about her recollections of what happened and as she would tell it, with a few notable exceptions, this film was fairly accurate, not that I mind a little dramatic license hear and there.

‘Frost / Nixon’ was a fascinating watch from start to finish. I was especially curious to see how Frank Langella was going to transform himself into Richard Nixon, because there’s nothing about the personage of Frank Langella that says Richard M. Nixon to me. Even though I haven’t seen nearly enough of Richard Nixon to say that Langella nailed the president, what he did create was a character full of insecure arrogance, someone who was proud and pathetic all at the same time, someone who was a living, walking talking contradiction. Mr. Langella manages to infuse Nixon with some sympathy, but not so much so that you pity him or bemoan the fate that he brought upon himself. A truly masterful performance. Michael Sheen also excels as David Frost as Ron Howard’s film unfolds at a pace and tone that almost feels likes a sports movie as you find yourself hoping that somehow David Frost can pull out a victory, even though he’s down late in the game with just one out remaining. Who would’ve thought a movie about two stuffy dudes bantering back and forth could be so enthralling.

Watching the film and assuming it to be largely accurate, I think you can see where Richard Nixon wouldn’t be too terribly concerned with David Frost. Nixon was smarter, he was quicker mentally, his personality is stronger and he was tougher. But if you drop a 35 foot Great White in my living room I’m kicking in its ass because the shark is out of its element and is now in mine. As ‘Frost / Nixon’ deftly points out, all things being equal Richard Nixon should've easily defeated David Frost in a battle of wits, but he did not understand the power of television, a domain that David Frost was the master of, and this was his undoing.

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