Frost/Nixon: Well Acted Screen Version–Too Theatrical

Frank Langella, who won the Tony Award and numerous other prizes for his portraiture of former president Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen, as TV interviewer David Frost, deliver engrossing performances in Ron Howard’s smooth screen version of Peter Morgan’s play “Frost/Nixon,” an old-fashioned, dialogue-driven movie that unlike most of Hollywood fare commands attention and is worth listening to.

Despite pedestrian beginnings, which betray the theatrical origins of the production, “Frost/Nixon” improves dramatically and artistically, and in the end, the film delivers a literate and intelligent entertainment that should appeal to mature audiences.

The movie received its world premiere at the London Film Festival and will open stateside December 5, in time for year’s end awards considerations, particularly in the writing and acting categories.

Read about Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind

emanuellevy.com/review/beautiful-mind-a-3/

As is known, the work of dramatist Peter Morgan consists of a series of televised interviews that Richard Nixon granted David Frost in 1977, which culminated with Nixon’s tacit admission of guilt regarding his personal role in the Watergate debacle, a scandal that ultimately cost him his presidency.

Directed by Michael Grandage, and starring Michael Sheen as the talk-show host and Frank Langella as the former president, the play premiered at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London in August 2006 to enthusiastic reviews, then transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. On March 31, 2007, the play began previews on Broadway, and opened as limited engagement at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on April 22, 2007, closing August 19, 2007, after 137 performances.

Some historical background is in order: In summer 1977, the televised Frost/Nixon interviews attracted the largest audience for a news program in the history of American TV. More than 45 million viewers were eager to get insights into the mind of their disgraced former commander-in-chief, anxious for him to acknowledge the abuses of power that led to his resignation. Audiences reportedly sat transfixed as Nixon and Frost sparred in a riveting verbal boxing match over the course of four evenings.

The movie depicts them as two men who knew that only one could come out a winner. When Frost declares, “Only one of us can win,” Nixon responds: “And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it’ll be the wilderness, with nothing, and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head.”

The couple’s legendary confrontations revolutionized the art of the confessional interview, changing the face of politics by capturing an admission from the former president that startled people all over the world, including Nixon himself.

As played by the two actors, initially, Nixon comes across as the disgraced president with a legacy to save, and Frost as a jet-setting featherweight TV personality with a name to make. But their historic encounter changes both men–radically. Recreating not only the on-air interviews that captivated the nation, but weeks of around-the world, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and negotiations between the men and their opposing camps, the film explores the long-untold story that led to the ultimate face-off in the court of public opinion.

For three years after being forced from office, Nixon remained silent. But in 1977, the steely, cunning former commander-in-chief agreed to sit for one all-inclusive interview to confront the unanswered questions of his time in office and the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. Nixon surprised everyone in selecting Frost as his televised confessor, intending to easily outfox the breezy British showman and reclaim his status as a supreme statesman in the hearts and minds of Americans. Likewise, Frost’s team harbored doubts about his ability to hold his own against Nixon.

As cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits ensued. At first, Nixon evaded questions of his role in one of the nation’s greatest disgraces For his part, Frost confounded critics and bravely demand accountability from the most skilled politician of his generation. Ultimately, the encounters revealed each man’s anxieties, insecurities, egos and reserves of dignity–as both ultimately set aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth.

A more technically skillful and savvy director (say Scorsese or Mike Nichols) would have made a more cinematically effective and shrewder picture of Morgan’s drama, which is essentially theatrical, marked by exits and entrances, pauses and silences in communication, punch lines and other unique stage devices.

To Morgan and Howard’s credit, “Frost/Nixon” attempts a non-judgmental approach, one that places the two protagonists in their respective broader socio-political contexts, emphasizing the diametrically opposed positions the two men occupied circa 1977. Hence, it’s up to the audience to decide to what extent Nixon was a tragic victim of his own doings, excessive confidence as a politico, big ego as a personality, voracious appetite for limitless power, lack of ability to recognize his weakness–and whether other presidents would have acted in similar way under the same circumstances.

By now Sheen has become an expert in playing real-life political persona, impersonating Tony Blair in both “The Deal” and the Oscar-winning “The Queen,” as well as appearing in “The Last King of Scotland.” In the new picture, Sheen again registers strongly as a bright if not terribly experienced journo, a womanizer with likeable personality and polished social skills, with a droll sense of humor and charisma to match. Though it simplifies matters and makes the proceedings even more theatrical, the very British Frost represents the opposite persona from Nixon, who in 1977 was an older, physically unappealing (to say the least), bitter, creepy man–has been–a man in desperate need for redemption or at least reconciliation with the better half of his self.

Though it’s very much structured as a boxing match for two, the proceedings get more interesting due to a large ensemble of secondary players. Playing a key role on Nixon’s team is Kevin Bacon as his chief of staff, Colonel Jack Brennan, the fierce guardian who guides Nixon through the strategy of the interviews.

Two brilliant consultants handle Frost¬ís education on the 37th American president. Oliver Platt plays Frost’s strategist (and executive editor of the interviews), veteran reporter Bob Zelnick, and Sam Rockwell Frost’s acerbic writer and Nixon critic, author and university lecturer James Reston, Jr. Both men are motivated to expose the “real” Nixon, operating as the architects of Frost’s strategy, while Frost took on the tasks of selling rights to the interviews, securing a broadcaster and studying his adversary.

Other thespians in very small parts include Rebecca Hall as Frost’s girlfriend Caroline Cushing; Toby Jones as Nixon’s agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar; and Matthew Macfadyen as Frost’s British producer John Birt.

Cast

Richard Nixon – Frank Langella
David Frost – Michael Sheen
Jack Brennan – Kevin Bacon
Caroline Cushing – Rebecca Hall
Swifty Lazar – Toby Jones
John Birt – Matthew Macfadyen
Bob Zelnick – Oliver Platt
James Reston – Sam Rockwell
Pat Nixon – Patty McCormack
Frank Gannon – Andy Miller
Diane Sawyer – Kate Jennings
Grant Sue Mengers – Eve Curtis

Credits

A Univeral release of a Universal, Imagine Entertainment, Working Title Films presentation in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media of a Brian Grazer/Working Title production.
Produced by Grazer, Ron Howard, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner.
Executive producers: Peter Morgan, Matthew Byam Shaw, Karen Kehela Sherwood, David Bernardi, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin, Todd Hallowell. Directed by Ron Howard.
Screenplay: Peter Morgan, based on his play.
Camera: Salvatore Totino.
Editors: Mike Hill, Dan Hanley.
Music: Hans Zimmer.
Production designer: Michael Corenblith.
Supervising art directors: Brian O’Hara, Gregory Van Horn.
Set designers:Lorrie Campbell, Chad S. Frey; set decorator, Susan Benjamin.
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi.
Sound: Peter J. Devlin; supervising sound editor, Anthony J. Ciccolini III; re-recording mixers, Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Mortano.
Associate producers: Louisa Velis, Kathleen McGill, William M. Connor.

MPAA Rating: R.

 Running time: 121 Minutes.