On August 9, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate cover-up, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency. He boarded Air Force One and entered into exile, which he spent at his Casa Pacifica seaside home. After three years in isolation, Nixon was approached with an interesting overture. British television host, David Frost, developed a keen desire to interview the fallen figure in a quintet of televised hour and a half programs. Frost/Nixon recalls the historic confrontation between the two seemingly mismatched men.
At the time, Frost (Michael Sheen) was generally regarded as an intellectual lightweight, with an insatiable penchant for womanizing. Back in the mid-‘60s, he had been introduced to stateside audiences as the host of That Was the Week That Was, the satirical comedy, which had been imported from England to the U.S. It had played several years before being cancelled. By 1977, he had been relegated to chatting up empty-headed show-business types on Australian television.
Nixon (Frank Langella) foresees the possibility of rehabilitating his tarnished image. He assumes that he’ll be able to intellectually dominate Frost, who is unaccustomed to interviewing major politicians. He posits that it might help him achieve a triumphant return east, where he can attain the status of a venerated elder statesman. Then, there’s the matter of money. Legendary agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) negotiates a $600,000 fee to procure Nixon’s involvement in the project.
Frost quickly assembles a team, consisting of a British producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), as well as two zealous American researchers, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). The film immerses us in the problems that Frost confronted in preparation for the taping. He had assumed that network executives would recognize the likelihood of a Nielson-ratings bonanza. However, the bidding war that he had anticipated never ensued. Self-righteously proclaiming their aversion to checkbook journalism, all of the networks disclaim interest.
Frost is stuck in an unenviable situation. He had already paid an advance fee to Nixon, but has been unable to procure the $2 million in funds from the networks necessary to bring the planned taping to fruition.
Desperate, Frost bites the bullet and decides to self-finance the project by raising the money from friends and associates. He should be focused on the impending tussle with Nixon, but instead is reduced to groveling for funds. What possible chance will the ill-prepared Frost have to match wits with Nixon?
Langella and Sheen reprise the roles that they perfected on Broadway. Their acting is top-rate. Frank Langella captures the intellectual acumen and the venality of Tricky Dicky, as well as his discomfort with interpersonal dynamics. It reminds us of how paradoxical it was that someone like Nixon could have been a successful politician. Langella’s performance has been widely touted for Academy Award consideration. Michael Sheen is an excellent foil to Langella. As he previously demonstrated in The Queen, he is adept at portraying individuals with a disarmingly low-key charm.
Peter Morgan has already demonstrated his facility at penning intelligent screenplays about the private lives of public figures with The Queen (in which Chris Sheen played U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and Helen Mirren played the titular monarch, Elizabeth Regina), The Last King of Scotland (which enabled Forrest Whitaker to pick up an Oscar for his role as Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin) and The Other Boleyn Girl (about King Henry VIII and his amorous escapades). Here, he successfully adapts his own stage play by opening it up for the screen. Morgan augments the head to head interview vignettes with scenes that embody significantly greater cinematicity.
Once again, director, Ron Howard, does a workman like job. As with his other vehicles, the result is a solid and entertaining film. Alas, Frost/Nixon falls short of the excellence than a more inspired man at the helm might have achieved with such a strong screenplay and cast.
*** R (for some language) 122 minutes