When British chat-show host David Frost and disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon sat down for a series of extended television interviews in 1977, both men had specific, and somewhat contradictory, motives. Frost was considered more of a celebrity than a journalist; his States-based show had failed and his British and Australian ventures were struggling for relevance, so he saw the Nixon interviews as a chance to establish his credibility and make some headlines, especially if he could coax out of Nixon the apology or admission of guilt that the American people so desperately desired. Nixon, on the eve of publishing his memoirs, saw the interviews as the opportunity to begin rehabilitating his public image, aggressively pushing the narrative of his foreign policy triumphs and dodging the few softball Watergate questions his less-than-stellar interviewer would lob his way.
Those psychological interests were what made Peter Morgan's 2006 stage hit Frost/Nixon so much more than a play about some TV interviews; particularly adept at spinning great drama out of seemingly dull subject matter (he wrote the screenplay for The Queen, a film that hung great suspense, convincingly, on whether Queen Elizabeth II should show public emotion after Diana's death), Morgan's play (which I had the good fortune of seeing during its Broadway run) positioned its two larger-than-life protagonists in an exhilarating battle of wits and wills.
Ron Howard is not the first director you might think of for this kind of material, but he navigates it with skill and precision, turning up the flash when it's called for and knocking down the theatrics at all the right moments. His smartest decision was retaining Michael Sheen (Blair in The Queen) as Frost and Frank Langella (who won a Tony for the play) as Nixon; both are magnificent. His second smartest decision was dumping the less-memorable supporting players and filling the cast with some of the best character actors working (Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, and the invaluable Oliver Platt).
Morgan adapts the play himself (a less difficult job than usual, as this was a very cinematic script to begin with), wisely transforming the direct-to-audience monologues into documentary-style to-camera interviews. Howard telescopes the action, honing in on the rich subtext while popping Morgan's terrific dialogue like so many firecrackers.
Both men (and Langella) are clearly fascinated by the complex psychology of Nixon, and they're not the first dramatists to explore the tragedy of this man; Oliver Stone, for example, made him the neo-Shakespearean center of one of his finest films. Langella's extraordinary performance is a triumph in both the big speeches and the tiny, introverted moments, but his fine work (and the film itself) reaches its apex in a late-night telephone conversation (a "3 a.m. phone call," if you will) between the two men late in the picture's second act.
Nixon calls Frost in his hotel room late one night; Frost is depressed over the failure of the interviews thus far, Nixon has had a few drinks. As the former President begins to talk, he attempts to draw parallels between his inquisitor and himself, about their backgrounds and struggles, first seeming to look for common ground, then building to an angry, seething rage. He gives Frost a glimpse inside, but his generalizations are pointed and nasty. He's taunting Frost. Why?
Answer that question, and you've figured out Nixon. Morgan's brilliant screenplay seems to argue that Nixon was pushing Frost to amp it up; he'd never admit it, but there was probably a part of him (the young Quaker who knew right from wrong) that had not yet been smothered by the politician. Somewhere inside his dark psyche, Nixon may have wanted to be held accountable, and when he saw that Frost wasn't working for it, he pushed him. That late night phone call may have been an act of self-flagellation.
And now I've gone far, far afield, but that's the kind of film Frost/Nixon is; it puts two smart men (and their gifted teams) in a room and watches what happens, and you can't helped but get sucked into their subtle mind game. The third act, in which Frost takes the bait and comes to the final interview ready to give Nixon the fight that he wants, is just plain thrilling, beautifully acted by two terrific performers (I realize, looking over this piece that I've undersold Sheen, who is extraordinary) and expertly handled by Howard, a journeyman director doing some of his finest work.
It's nothing new to complain that movies don't get made for grown-ups these days, so when a movie as invigorating, witty, and smart (seriously, this is one of the most intelligent screenplays produced by a major Hollywood studio in recent memory) as Frost/Nixon gets made, attention should be paid. This is one of the year's best films. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.