Well, who’d’a’thunk it, the Imagine logo at the beginning of serious, intense little political movie!? You have to credit Ron Howard with being brave enough to try his hand at something new. Very much like his mentor and obvious role-model, Steven Spielberg, after frittering away his best years re-making the same tired crowd-pleasers, he’s achieved the status of ‘elder statesman’ and this seems to have inspired him to take a few trips outside his DMZ (Directing for Money Zone). Yes, he’ll aim at stationary targets like EdTV (1999), The Grinch (2000) and Cinderella Man (2005) but, every now and then, he’ll take pot-shots at films like Ransom (1996) and The Missing (2003).
This is his most grown-up film (not before time, he is now in his mid-fifties) and his most focussed. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella share top billing which, whilst The Screen Actor’s Guild might not approve, is only right as they share much of the screen time and all of the responsibility for the film's success or failure.
Sheen, as we have come to expect, gives us an uncannily precise impersonation of David Frost yet, and once again this is very much as usual for Sheen, he manages to project a real, fully-rounded person through the impersonation. His Frost is a vain, ferociously ambitious, morally dubious and internally quite hollow man. Langella, although he lacks Sheen’s physical similarity to his character, very much has the bearing and the manner of the disgraced ex-president. His Nixon is a shameless game-player, with a somewhat-misunderstood dry-as-bone sense of humour, always attempting to project whatever image he feels is in his best interest: shuffling somewhat clumsily from avuncular grand-father figure to wounded lion as the occasion demands. He oozes the caustic confidence which clearly makes him dangerous to those who cross his path.
Frost/Nixon's opening scenes are essentially a montage of interviews with the supporting players, cut together in a manner deeply reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), not least because of the presence of Kevin Bacon (who is in both films). These quotes lay the groundwork for what we are about to see, informing those who never knew, reminding those who’ve had time to forget, of just what the mood was like in America when Nixon committed crimes in The White House and was then exonerated by Gerald Ford, his successor. The American people felt they had been cheated out of a trial and an apology. Sam Rockwell’s character, James Reston, sums this all up with the great line: “He devalued the Presidency and he left the country that elected him in trauma!” Suddenly one becomes aware of the reasons original-playwright-and-now-scriptwriter, Peter Morgan felt the need to tell this particular political tale at this particular time. It is partly good fortune and partly good timing that this film was released in the UK the week our generation’s Commander-in-Thief took a step into long-overdue retirement.
The remainder of the first half of the film concerns itself with the preparations for the interviews; an absolutely fascinating insight into the wheeling and dealing which managed to get Frost, perceived then as merely a chat-show host and something of a has-been (the glory of TW3 very-much in his past, the dire misery of Through The Keyhole very-much still in his future). His ace in the hole throughout this is his friend the BBC producer, John Birt, played with typical pinch-faced solemnity by Matthew MacFadyen. I was working at the BBC in the early nineties during Birt’s frostily puritanical reign as DG and only now, finally, do I understand why such a dull, listless, paper-clip-counter of a man rose to wield supreme executive power. It wasn’t because he’d been separated at birth from the then-Prime Minister, John Major, but because he was trading on the reputation he’d built-up as the producer of The Nixon Interviews.
The BBC Four biopics which have been surfacing on our Freeview screens over the last couple of years (including, of course Fantabulosa! starring Mr. Sheen as Kenneth Williams) may be heavy on the insight and the acting, but they’re light on kinetic energy. To enliven things here and help the film break-away from its stage-bound roots, Howard has borrowed a few tools out of Paul Greengrass’ box. We get whippy editing, we get harsh, cold colours and we get the wobbly, tight-focussed close-ups with the fuzzy objects in the fore-ground that help make essentially dull images of people sitting talking look more interesting.
The period details are deftly woven into the fabric of the film without intruding too much and they are shot so skilfully by Howard’s regular DP, Salvatore Totino, that they make the mid-seventies seem exotic and stylish. Well, I was only a scrap of a lad, but I was there and I don’t remember it being all that glamorous.
As we get into their four extended interviews (there were actually twelve, but this is a movie not a mini-series) we learn more and more about the two men and find that they are, essentially the same. What Morgan realised, and employed as the heart of this drama, is that Frost and Nixon needed each other. Both see the interview as their chance to return to the Big Time. Frost wants fame in America and a red carpet in Hollywood, Nixon wants to talk his way back into Washington. Like Bush, Nixon’s Presidency was under the glare of a microscope which magnified and dramaticised both his strengths and his failings. Of the two, Morgan is probably kinder to Nixon, seeing in him a figure of Shakespearean tragic proportions
Ultimately, the film is about the clash of these two immovable, irresistible personalities and this conflict makes the film’s latter scenes riveting. It’s wonderful watching Langella/Nixon do what politicians do best: avoid answering a direct question at considerable length whilst, like any good orator - Kennedy (John F. not Nigel) , Clinton (Bill, not George) and Blair (Tony, not Lionel) spring to mind – spinning the facts into a great fairy-tale which manipulate the emotions and turn the tables. Watching Frost and Nixon jousting is very much like watching a Rocky film. Nixon wins the first rounds. By knockout. Frost is very much on the ropes, his reputation is entirely on-the-line, the financial burden he personally faces is crippling, meanwhile Nixon is on the crest of a wave of renewed vigour and confidence; then they come to the all-important fourth and final interview …
Inevitably, the weight of the whole production rests equally on the shoulders of Langella and Sheen and it is to the credit of both that they excel under the pressure. Of course, they’d both played these characters on stage in the West End and Broadway so knew them inside out, but that doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive, quite the opposite. While I think it’s understandable that the Oscar Academy have singled out Langella for a nomination instead of Sheen (because they are mostly Americans and therefore have not the faintest idea who David Frost is, so don’t know how fantastically good Sheen’s channelling of him is); I think it’s a shame and simply unfair that the BAFTAs have similarly ignored Sheen’s achievement. It seems that he, like Frost back in the seventies, is criminally underestimated.
Addendum: Not at all as part of the marketing for this movie but purely by co-incidence (!) The Independent on Sunday chose the week of the film’s release to give away a free DVD containing about 70 minutes of edited highlights of the real Frost/Nixon interviews, with about twenty minutes of commentary from Sir Frost himself. These make for a fascinating companion-piece and I hope, when the DVD emerges, it has something similar as an extra so people can compare and contrast the reality to the dramatisation.
The first significant difference is purely an aesthetic one, where the film uses stark side and edge lighting, the TV picture uses flat but far less dynamic studio lights, necessary in the 1970s so the video camera could pick up all the details of Tricky Dicky’s face.
It is actually quite moving to see the real Nixon visibly torn by his dilemma, then deciding to cross the Rubicon, commenting that it was “ … one of those times when you’re not thinking, when you say what’s really in your heart … when you’re not reading a prepared statement.” The real apology is less eloquent and considerably more rambling than that in the dramaticised version, but that’s because he’s off-script, a politician doing what really doesn’t come naturally: speaking openly and honestly, not reciting rehearsed dogma. He admits crying and his voice even cracks slightly when he says “Sorry”. And there it is, the moment when the immovable object was cracked open by the irresistible force.
As for Frost’s modern-day contribution, it’s amusing how much he, now aged 70, looks like Nixon did then at age 74, but his comments do throw some interesting nuggets of information into the mix: Such as the fact that he had grilled Nixon previously, in 1968 and 1970. The film clearly shows that their meeting in preparation for this interview was their first meeting and establishes (for the purposes of creating David and Goliath suspense) that Frost was simply a chat-show host with delusions of grandeur.
So, our generation can only await with bated breath for history to repeat itself … and for Graham Norton to mercilessly bring George W. to his knees on live TV.
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Matthew MacFadyen.
Dur: 122 mins
image © Universal Pictures in the UK