Released 2008 – Runs a little over 2 hours
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan (based on his stageplay)
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
3 stars out of 4
Somewhat weirdly rated R in some countries when it came out (for language) this is currently a PG in Canada.
Viewing notes: Good home theatre conditions. I had watched this film previously, sometime between it’s initial release and now – but at least a few years ago. I was not yet alive when events depicted during this film occurred. I am vaguely aware of the Watergate scandal, but I don’t consider myself especially up on politics.
Mild Spoilers May Follow
This film tells the story of a lengthy – and I gather famous at least among certain people – interview series conducted by TV show host and personality David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) and disgraced U.S. President Nixon (Frank Langella), following Nixon’s resignation from office over the Watergate cover-up. It tells us a story about how Mr. Frost arranged to conduct the interview despite many people in the TV business not believing he was the right person for the job, and despite doubt from his own research team about his political knowledge and intellectual abilities.
It also tells us a story about Mr. Nixon’s desire to repair his reputation, his relationship with those around him (including an interesting relationship with the character played by Kevin Bacon,) and his apparently firmly held belief that he really did nothing wrong.
Plus, there is what I assume is accurate recreation of portions of the interview.
And there is some commentary about the role that media plays in politics, for better and/or for worse, and how there is a constant challenge to adapt to ‘new’ media.
I feel that this was a very professionally produced and performed film, and I appreciated that it was relatively sympathetic to both sides of this story. I ended up feeling somewhat sorry for Mr. Nixon, who came across to me in this characterization as an older man with perhaps misplaced but heartfelt convictions who was tricked (and then in one late scene, somewhat taunted) by a grinning younger dude who was, at least initially, just in it for the money. It’s not that Frost comes across as a villain, exactly, but he does not feel like a ‘hero’ either. I didn’t get as good a feel for David Frost’s character within this film’s universe as I would have liked to – there is one scene, however, where his character suggests this is part of the point of the story – that this is meant to be more a story of Nixon than a story about Frost.
And of course while I felt this film had sympathy for Nixon, it does not say that he was in the right. This film hasn’t really got an unambiguous hero.
There is quite a lot of humour in the film, particularly in the first half, and I was pleasantly surprised to encounter one of my favourite active actors, Sam Rockwell, in a supporting part. I was previously acquainted with Frank Langella through watching The Americans TV show, but I am unfamiliar with Michael Sheen’s other work. People watching this film hoping for a significant female character will be disappointed – the closest we get to a significant role for a woman is as David Frost’s girlfriend – and she does not have much to do except look pretty and be vaguely supportive and go fetch hamburgers.
I found the quotidian sound effects particularly noticeable and beneficial, but the music seemed a bit “drama standard” and was sometimes a bit annoying to me.
I suspect that while there must have been a lot of research put into this film, there was also considerable creative licence taken, particularly in one sequence when Nixon calls Frost up on the phone after having a few too many drinks. I don’t know for sure, of course, maybe that really happened, but regardless of the mix of truth and fiction the whole is quite effective – until the very end, when it all winds up rather “Okay, and what is it that you want us to take from all this?”
I also felt the pace started to drag a bit towards the end, when it was “serious stuff” time, and suffered from being perhaps a bit over-reverential towards the actual interviews. The film tells me they had a profound impact on US politics and a generation’s view of politics, and maybe that’s true. But there is little inherently dramatic about watching two guys stare at each other from opposing chairs, and when you add the remove of watching them stare at each other through a TV monitor within a screen…
What prevents this film from gaining four stars from me:
Given that David Frost is the protagonist of this film, it would have been nice to learn a bit more about his character, and perhaps part of the problem is that Langella overpowers Michael Sheen.
This is a story about a very specific event, which may well have lasting, reverberating impact, but it’s story will continue to mostly appeal to political junkies, no matter how well the story is presented.
It could probably have been ten minutes shorter.
It would have been nice if it had a different score…
And it’s “framing” device, with characters providing mini-interviews/reflections/explanations felt a bit unnecessary – I’m not particularly political, but I found myself saying “I already knew about that” a couple of times. On the other hand, someone with less exposure to American politics by osmosis might find the framing helpful.
Because the film is nicely sympathetic and rather ambiguous about how to feel about it’s two leads, it’s also a bit ambiguous as to what it’s point is – it’s voice and ultimate vision is a bit hard to discern, and because it doesn’t have a firm opinion or vision about the events it depicts, because this is a political-stuff tale and not an adventure tale, or romance, and no extraterrestrials blow up… It doesn’t really have a lasting ‘ah ha! I’ll remember this from this film!’ moment or feel. I know I’ve seen this film before, but there was nothing particular about it that I remembered before watching it again.
However, over all, I found this to be a very solid and enjoyable film, with solid production values and performances. It kept me engaged and interested, and I was happy to watch it. A firm three stars from me.
Frost/Nixon was nominated for 5 Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Langella) Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. But it didn’t get any wins. (It lost Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire, and Langella lost to Sean Penn, in case you’re interested.)
P.S. – It just occured to me that Frank Langella also appears in movie club pick Captain Fantastic.