Frost/Nixon is directed by Ron Howard, another Hollywood constant of excellence—or at least solid proficiency. But Howard took no chances bringing this stage drama to the screen. As with Doubt, Frost/Nixon’s screenwriter is also its playwright, Peter Morgan, and Howard plucked Michael Sheen and Frank Langella to reprise the title roles they originated in London and later on Broadway.
Can the movie version bring any surprises? Not really, but in Howard-like fashion, it’s a satisfying two hours. Howard and Morgan spend less than half the film on the genesis of the astonishing 1977 interviews between English talk-show host David Frost (Sheen) and former President Richard Nixon (Langella). In short, it was a miracle. Frost was a star in England when Nixon resigned, but he was best known for fluff journalism and a cheeky personality. People were incredulous when he pursued the disgraced president for an interview, his first since Watergate. Even Frost’s producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), is incredulous: “I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees.”
After some bargaining (among the other human qualities Nixon is shown to possess here, cheapness is the most entertaining), Nixon’s literary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Infamous’ Toby Jones), reaches a deal with Frost, assuring his client that the interview will be a “big wet kiss.” Frost is elated but quickly yanked back to reality when no American networks express interest and sponsorship agreements drop like Nixon’s credibility. The TV host kept scrambling, however, digging mainly into his own pockets to hire a pair of pessimistic researchers (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) to help him prep.
The meat of Frost/Nixon, of course, is the interviews themselves, which were notable not only for being the first since Nixon left public office but for what Frost managed to wrangle from the former president: his first admission of complicity in Watergate. Even re-created, the joust is stunning: Sheen is devastating as Frost, shrinking into his chair as his overconfidence evaporates the minute Nixon coolly answers what was supposed to be the gotcha opening question. Nixon’s command of their exchange continues; Frost seems like he’ll never recover.
But Frost keeps chipping away, toward a knockout that feels less like a victory than a blow to the gut. Nixon’s admission only reminded everyone that, as Rockwell’s character says, “he devalued the presidency and left the country that elected him in trauma.” The most impressive achievement of Frost/Nixon, though, is that instead of reviling the criminal, you feel sorry for the man. Morgan’s words and Langella’s performance—appropriately gruff yet never mimicking—offer a Nixon who’s troubled, uncertain, sympathetic, and remorseful.
A drunken phone call to Frost in which he commiserates about how they’ve both suffered because of their backgrounds is probably intended to be the film’s big misty-eyed moment, but I think that moment actually comes at the very end, when Frost visits Nixon one final time: “Do you like all those parties?” Nixon asks the socialite, who says he does. “You got no idea how fortunate that makes you,” Nixon says. “Liking people, being liked, that facility…I don’t have it, never did.” The real president’s admission of wrongdoing was surprising, but Langella’s ability to make you tear up over him is even more so.