Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Score: 8 / 10
(Warning: Minor Spoiler Alert)
When reading the cast list for certain films, you might find you doing the same thing I do. I can’t help but make judgments regarding the film’s credibility and its plot, before even the first words have been uttered. Looking at the cast here, you already know it’s top-notch. You see that Ron Howard is the Director, so you know that noone is going to be allowed to drop the ball. You may also have some prior knowledge about the Frost/Nixon interviews which lend the film its central theme. You are aware that David Frost, the celebrated but seemingly lightweight comic/interviewer needs to score a high profile interview to facilitate his way back into the favour at the BBC and in the US. You know all about Watergate and you wonder why Richard Nixon would agree to such an interview. You may know that the film is based on a play, so you imagine it might have that same stilted feel – limited scenes in a few locations, and an emphasis on language over imagery. You might even feel a little disheartened, assuming that this might be a bit worthy and over-intellectualised with its focus on events that occurred when the majority of today’s filmgoers were very young. In fact maybe you’ve nearly talked yourself out of seeing the film, its not contemporary, its not what you’d normally see and it might be, heaven forbid, a bit…..dull.
I say STOP! Give yourself a shake and watch the film because it is an absolute delight. This is one of those films that is filled with the unexpected by opening up a ponderous stage play about a story we all think we know, and giving it the wings that only visual imagery on the big screen (and a bigger budget) can provide. I found Frost/Nixon mesmerising.
I will say this though, you must persevere. Ron Howard understands that we may not fully understand the characters intentions and therefore provides us with a lengthy first section. He wants the viewer to fall into the trap of categorising Nixon as a washed and derided figure and Frost as a frivolous underdog. But then you are introduced to James Reston Jr (played with flair by Sam Rockwell) a passionate anti-Nixon biographer who believes the American public deserve an admission of Nixon’s culpability, and Jack Brennan, (an assured turn by Kevin Bacon) an ex-military right-hand man with a voice of reason who fundamentally believes that certain practices are perfectly necessary for the good of people. Brennan is a deadly serious force in a world filled with unholy camaraderie. The period detail is fantastic, seen in the seventies hotel suite décor, the tailoring and riotously, the hairstyles (particularly Matthew Macfadyen very much enjoying John Birt’s shaggy hair) and highlighted by Nixon’s obsession with Frost’s Italian loafers. The action (no car chases and explosions of course) effortlessly flicks between Australia, London and LA, and the playing out of the four key interviews of foreign policy, domestic policy, personal life and Watergate is interspersed with behind-the-scenes style footage allowing each character to escape from their caricature. It’s a good move, giving this film to Ron Howard, placing delicate material in such a capable pair of American hands.
Of course, this film has flaws. It is neither controversial nor particularly hard-hitting, and female characters are given short shrift. Rebecca Hall is woefully underutilised even though she gets the best lines outside of Nixon. However the screenplay expertly expands on an important moment of history making it both entertaining and far more relevant, than you’d initially conceive. The film asks some important questions. Can the media provide us with something from our politicians that Government can’t provide? Can Trial by Media sometimes be the only option left and the best way forward? Peter Morgan, expanding on his celebrated play, allows Brennan and Reston Jr provide the storyline with its heart, as two characters on either side of the divide but both feeling with absolute certainty that they are in the right and the world should know so.
Plaudits for Frank Langella have naturally come flooding in. Yes he effortlessly deals with the sizeable task of taking someone morally corrupt and giving them some much needed three dimensionality, making him look savvy, unflinching and erudite. But he is ably counterbalanced by Michael Sheen’s brilliant performance. Frost almost makes the most interesting viewing. He is the ultimate playful playboy for the majority of the film but as he suffers Nixon’s punch after verbal punch, his discomfort is tangible. We may all know what was coming, but the film in its denouement, is masterful. You come to care for the playboy and you realise how he has stretched himself to pull off this coup, moments before the limelight passes. And Nixon's late night, inebriated phone call sets up the power struggle of the Watergate discussions with meticulous genius. You want to feel Frost's gratification at extracting a small apology, but more importantly, you see Nixon's own epiphany as to his responsibility for his own downfall, and his realisation as to what he has lost.
To feel sympathy for someone so ravaged by power is testament to the sheer brilliance of Howard's light touch. A wonderful film.
My reviews feature on www.liveforfilms.com