At the ends of their respective terms, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were the two least popular presidents in the last half-century--but Nixon is an infinitely more complex and fascinating figure. Maybe that's why "Frost/Nixon," a film about just one post-presidential slice of Nixon's life, somehow resonates more deeply than Oliver Stone's "W.," which tried to take the full measure of the man.
"Frost/Nixon" is one of Ron Howard's simplest films and also one of his best. Led by an Oscar-level performance by Frank Langella and fine work from Michael Sheen as the dapper playboy interviewer David Frost, this adaptation of Peter Morgan's play is one of the best movies of the year. Whether you're old enough to remember the Frost/Nixon interviews from 1977 or smart enough (and that would be just about everyone) to recognize the parallels between authority-abusing presidents some 40 years apart, every frame of this film is relevant today.
A number of fine actors have played Richard Nixon. Michael Gambon, Philip Baker Hall, Dan Hedaya, Anthony Hopkins. Some have delved into sweaty, paranoid caricatures. Frank Langella's Nixon is not an impersonation, though Langella does capture Nixon's deep voice and hunched uncomfortableness. He doesn't really look like Nixon, but he delivers the man's essence--the arrogance, the social awkwardness, the narcissism. It is a marvelous piece of acting.
Before we get to Nixon and the interviews, we have to know the story of David Frost, the charming lightweight whose career was in a downswing by the mid-1970s. Following a successful run of TV gigs in Britain, Frost was doing a chat show in Australia when he came up with the idea of an extended sit-down session with Nixon. After several failed attempts to raise the money, Frost put up much of Nixon's $600,000 fee himself, and the game was on.
Much to the dismay of his advisers (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell), Frost lands nary a punch in the early rounds with Nixon, who is a master at evading questions, dominating the conversation and messing with Frost. (Just before one session, Nixon says, "So...did you do any fornicating last night?" You believe he might be the one man on the planet who would actually use that term.) Yet even as Nixon is batting Frost around between his paws, you feel that Nixon also envies this dapper womanizer. Frost is the kind of guy Nixon probably hated as a younger man--the guy who gets the pretty girls, tells the funny jokes and isn't burdened by the weight of the world's problems.
"Frost/Nixon" plays a little with the timeline of the interviews and includes some fully fictionalized moments, including a pivotal late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost that never took place. That's OK; this isn't a documentary. Morgan's screen adaptation of his own play achieves a truth about these two men and their utterly unlikely encounter on the world stage. Howard knows he has strong material and a stellar band of actors, so he doesn't try to do too much with the camera. He places in the mid-1970s without hitting us over the head with period-piece reminders, he gives us the back story--and then he lets Langella and Michael Sheen have at it. The result is one of the fastest and most entertaining two-hour films of the year.