It’s a character study, a thriller, a mystery. It’s as contemporary as recent headlines and as epic as a Greek tragedy. It has a terrific script by British playwright Peter Morgan based on his successful play, and is directed with subtle elegance by Ron Howard (The DaVinci Code, A Beautiful Mind). All the actors from leading roles to secondary parts are superb. But when it comes right down to it, the movie Frost/Nixon belongs to veteran stage and film actor Frank Langella. In a mere 122 minutes of film time, he transformed the awkward caricature of President Richard M. Nixon into a living, breathing, feeling human being.
Mr. Langella (Starting Out in the Evening) did extensive research on Mr. Nixon, even going so far as to spend an hour in the President’s childhood home in California to understand the boy’s ingrained feelings of inadequacy that lead to his obsessive ambition as a man. He studied everything he could read, both the words by the man and the words spoken about him. He learned to walk like Nixon, striding long, standing tall but with a noticeable stoop as if old age was encroaching early. He somehow made his chiseled face acquire jowls similar to Nixon’s roly-poly facial appendages. He acquired Nixon’s speech pattern, alternating between self-pity, paranoia and his infamous vulgarity. The fiercest of political animals, Nixon was one of the most intelligent and certainly the most complex man ever to inhabit the White House. That he was also pathetic and dangerous is also true. All of these conflicting personas Frank Langella absorbed into his body, mulled them around in own expansive intelligence and emerged with a character that embodies the essence of the man who was Richard Nixon but is never, never an imitation of him.
Langella’s performance in Frost/Nixon is so extraordinary that no matter what your opinion of Mr. Nixon himself is, you miss him when he’s not on screen. He’s so mesmerizing that it’s almost unfair to Michael Sheen (The Queen), himself a talented and compelling actor, who puts in a riveting portrayal of David Frost.
David Frost is a charming British TV personality whom most people consider a lightweight, which is easy to do because that’s the reputation he fashions with his frequent flier Lothario ways and handmade Italian shoes. Alas, he’s also a has-been in need of something spectacular to bring him back to the top of his game. For some reason, Frost decides that he can acquire the gravitas he wants only if he can get the journalistic coup of the decade: a series of one-on-one unedited interviews with disgraced American President Richard M. Nixon. He gathers heavyweight journalist bloodhounds–James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt, Casanova)–who are determined, rightly or wrongly, to give Mr. Nixon on camera the trial he never had in real life. They want a “cascade of candor” to come from Mr. Nixon.
While Frost courts a comely new girlfriend, Caroline Cushing, (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), he risks all of his personal savings to pay Nixon to agree to the project (a kingly sum of $ 600,000). Then sets off on the daunting, thankless job of getting broadcasters to agree to air the interviews.
At long last, with his whole career hanging in the balance, Frost begins the interviews at the home of a Nixon neighbor. But while the Nixon camp, personified by his trusted gatekeeper Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon, Mystic River), underestimates the Frost team, Frost himself fails to realize until it’s almost too late what a canny opponent Mr. Nixon could be. He filibusters, evades, changes the topic, wavers between sarcasm and blame, throws out shocking jabs that disconcert Frost so much he can barely speak. Never does he take on the burden of responsibility and he dances around the truth as if he had just taken several years of ballet lessons. He’s an on-camera challenger more experienced than Frost dreamed of.
Will Frost, the seeming hero of the movie, ever get what he wants–a confession from Mr. Nixon? Will Nixon, the seeming antagonist, keep his pride in the face of an ever more brutal inquisitor? Back and forth, as if each man were in the corner of a boxing ring, the combatants jockey for power.
It’s important to remember that though the film was based on the TV interviews and subsequent research, it’s not a documentary. Several scenes are patently fiction. The job of a dramatist is to not to tell “The Truth, but to dramatize, which means facts can be re-arranged, dialogue excerpted, and imaginary scenes created to tell a larger “truth.” As Langella creates the essence of Mr. Nixon, so the film itself, not mimicry of real life, attempts to create the essence of the relationship between Mr. Frost and Mr. Nixon.
When the interviews are over, when Nixon has finally admitted, “I let the American people down. And I’m gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life…” is he a self-loathing loser or vanquished hero?
In a year of wonderful movies, Frost/Nixon can definitely take its place as one of the best. Like Sean Penn’s portrayal of slain gay activist Harvey Milk in Milk, Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon will be remembered as one of the most remarkable performances in recent memory.