Watching Frost/Nixon, I couldn’t get past a strange and completely unexpected feeling I had deep in my gut. Something about the movie took me by surprise; something below the surface, something that no one would really expect out of a political drama focusing on the series of interviews David Frost (Michael Sheen) did with disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella).
I finally put my finger on it during the final confrontation between the two men, as lights beamed down on them from above and spectators anxiously awaited on the sidelines. In this, the final interview, Frost came out swinging, leaving Nixon reeling from the get-go with a mean right-hook of an opening question, something which (as we plainly see over the course of the rest of the interview) Nixon never recovers from. The towering and imposing ex-leader of the free world couldn’t withstand the barrage of Truth his opponent unleashed upon him, and he had to take a time-out with his coach (played by a fantastically uptight Kevin Bacon) to recover. In a moment of clarity, Tricky Dick realizes that deep down he doesn’t have it in him to keep fighting; with his head held high he walks back to the spotlights and takes his final bow before conceding the match to the younger, sprier man, letting David Frost walk away the proud victor in the most important fight of his life.
Frost/Nixon, really, is an underdog sports film (there’s even a training montage sequence towards the end, with Frost furiously researching and pouring over notes as he prepares for the fourth and final interview). More accurately, it’s a boxing film, cleverly dressed up in a political wrapping.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still the story of how David Frost managed to get a confession out of Richard Nixon for crimes committed during his tenure as leader of the free world. But it’s a lot more than just that. It’s a rise and fall story articulating Frost’s ascension and Nixon’s decline. It’s a story of the little guy toppling the bigger, stronger opponent. It’s about the struggle to succeed, and the fight for respect and acknowledgment. And all told, it’s a damn fine movie.
Frost/Nixon, as you might expect, really comes to life during the interview segments, the meat and potatoes of the film. Sheen and Langella here are reprising the roles they played in the stage production of the same name, and for their encounters to be anything less than riveting would lead the film toward catastrophe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their on-screen chemistry and rapport is exquisite, conveying the underlying similarities both men share in spite of the staggering differences between them. Success, specifically the struggles people endure to achieve it, defines the relationship that slowly develops between the opponents; the interviews represent a means by which success can be attained (for Frost) or retained (for Nixon). Frost’s intentions are not purely altruistic; he sees the interviews as an opportunity to both bring relief and justice to a country by getting a confession out of Nixon, yes, but he also (initially) sees them as a chance to prove himself and gain respect as an interviewer. Similarly, Langella establishes Nixon’s own vulnerabilities and presents him as a man desperate to defend his legacy as the President of the United States, and determined to prove his detractors– both past and present– wrong. “We’ll make them choke on our continued success,” he thunders to a stunned Frost in an unexpected late night phone call. It’s a powerful moment that performs an unexpected feat– it humanizes Nixon.
Langella may not have set out to create perhaps the most sympathetic, human, and yet measured interpretation of the crooked ex-President of all time (though I’m sure that Oliver Stone might have something to say about that), but in portraying Richard Nixon the man instead of Richard Nixon the character that’s exactly what he does. This is not to say the film holds any illusions about who Nixon was and what he did, and it makes no apologies for the heinous crimes he perpetrated as America’s commander-in-chief. Frost/Nixon‘s Nixon is, in fact, a crook, but he’s a vulnerable and affable crook, a man who knows he has done wrong and wants nothing more than to be looked upon fondly by his countrymen despite his indiscretions. Langella’s performance hits all of these notes, and organically generates sympathy for a character one could easily write off as being unsympathetic. It’s an impressive feat, and a truly magnificent performance from Langella. While Frost may have defeated Nixon in the series of interviews, there is no doubt as to who the victor is in the battle of the actors taking place between Langella and Sheen; the former all but walks away with the entire movie.
Not that Sheen isn’t a presence in his own right. Sheen’s Frost is all bravado and charm, a man who valiantly fights to keep his insecurities and anxieties hidden beneath his cool exterior. Unlike Nixon, who appears perpetually willing to open up to people behind closed doors and away from cameras, Frost seems to struggle to express his fears and concerns to his own lover. What truly makes Frost a compelling protagonist lies in his motivation– he proposes the interviews out of a desire to be recognized as a legitimate interviewer, rather than a fluff interviewer. Unsatisfied with simply being a remora in the world of celebrities, Frost craves something more substantial. Ultimately, of course, he realizes that he has to get Nixon to confess, but this realization is born not out of a need to grant closure to the American people but also to ensure that his interviews are actually viewed. Another actor might have let Frost be smugly selfish, but Sheen makes his desire to better his own position in life palatable and in turn the character morphs into something much more complex.
Frost/Nixon is at it’s best in the moments when Sheen and Langella are allowed to interact; they’ve done this before, and it shows. Both men have truly mastered the dynamics of the relationship, and watching it develop is the greatest joy that can be derived from the film. This is not to say that the moments in between are not worth watching; the footage surrounding the interviews comprises a solid if somewhat formulaic political cause drama. But the movie becomes so much about Frost’s and Nixon’s various agendas and crusades and struggles that the film’s other elements become so much window dressing, undeveloped thoughts and ideas floating on the fringe of the greater story. They serve their purpose, of course, and they are rarely boring (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt make for an entertaining and diverting pair as Reston and Zelnick, respectively, two of Frost’s advisers), but in summation they’re merely adequate.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect more than that from the supporting cast. Certainly Sheen and Langella have done this dance enough times together that they make the entire relationship look breathtakingly smooth and natural. That hardly seems like much of an excuse, of course, but in the end none of this should deter anyone from seeing the film: watching Sheen and Langella spar is worth the price of admission on it’s own.