In 1977, David Frost was an enormously successful but intellectually featherweight talk-show host best known for fawning over celebrities—the British Larry King, more or less. Richard Nixon, his disgrace still relatively fresh, had spent three years in post-resignation exile, licking his wounds on his gorgeous California estate. Ever-ambitious, Frost proposed to Nixon that they conduct a series of no-holds-barred television interviews, which would constitute the ex-President’s first public reckoning since leaving office. Enticed by the $600,000 offer, Nixon accepted. Would Frost manage to coax an admission of wrongdoing out of Nixon, thereby bolstering his credibility as a “real” journalist? Could Nixon, by dodging and weaving, rehabilitate his image? Even a moment’s thought will reveal that the answer to both of these questions is the same: Who cares? All credit, then, to Frost/Nixon, a movie engrossing enough to create the illusion that something of momentous import was actually at stake.
Cannily, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), who adapted his own hit stage play, creates an immediate rooting interest by grafting real-life events onto the surefire template of the underdog sports flick. With decades of experience in political and verbal warfare under his belt, Nixon (Frank Langella) represents the league champion, blessed with all the abilities and resources his adversary lacks. (Never mind that Tricky Dick famously lost his first bid for the White House in large part because Kennedy was far more telegenic.) By stark contrast, Frost (Michael Sheen), a one-man Bad News Bears, can’t even step onto the field (or into the ring—the film is replete with overt boxing metaphors) without tripping over his shoelaces. For three of four scheduled sessions, the ex-Pres is in complete control, skillfully evading Frost’s every effort to demand accountability. Inevitably, it all comes down to that final round/inning/quarter: the discussion of Watergate. Hail Mary.
That this doesn’t come across as sheer pandering—not entirely, anyway—is due largely to the engaging performances of the film’s two little-known stars, who originated the roles on the London stage and then followed the production when it moved to Broadway. (Ron Howard directs with his usual bland efficiency, but at least he had the good sense not to mess with a winning formula for the sake of a snazzier marquee.) Granted, Langella looks almost nothing like Nixon, and even has trouble maintaining the man’s weirdly stentorian vocal cadence—you’ve seen much better impersonations. But physiognomy is less important in this context than is Langella’s ability to capture Nixon’s queasy amalgam of arrogance and insecurity, and to convey the degree to which the latter fed the former. Sheen, meanwhile, who was so memorable as Tony Blair to Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth II, creates a vivid portrait of an inveterate glad-hander gamely taking on the weightiest challenge of his career and gradually realizing that mere charm, for once, will not suffice.
Then again, just how weighty an event are we talking about, really? Much like the otherwise excellent Shattered Glass, which inflated Stephen Glass’ minor and ultimately meaningless lies into The End of Journalism as We Know It, Frost/Nixon wants us to believe that the nation’s very future hinged on the outcome of its events, when in fact these interviews were little more than high-toned infotainment. Frost didn’t metamorphose into a muckraking crusader afterward, and whether the American public considers Nixon a bastion of evil or just a misguided doofus doesn’t really matter, and never did. The movie is just an entertaining clash of two oversized egos, and that’s fine by me. Just so long as 30 years from now we aren’t obliged to endure the distaff sequel: Couric/Palin.