Running time 122 minutes
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt
Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, from the screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his play, succeeds magnificently in re-creating the historic 1977 television interview as a gripping suspense drama anchored by the brilliantly lived-in performances of Frank Langella as post-Watergate Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as reputedly lightweight celebrity television host David Frost, before he is transformed into an avenging inquisitor. The suspense arises from the fact that Nixon and the people around him agreed to the interview in the first place only because they failed to take Frost seriously as a television journalist, and hence regarded him as no major obstacle to the rehabilitation of Nixon’s image with the American people.
The flawless casting extends to the warring inner circles surrounding David Frost and Richard Nixon. Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt, Mr. Frost’s savvy and diplomatic producer, is almost unrecognizable from the no-nonsense hero he plays in the BBC espionage series MI-5. Sam Rockwell’s James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt’s Bob Zelnick are a study in contrasts as Frost’s crackerjack team of researchers: The young Reston is a fiery ideologue always on the verge of blowing his fuse; the jovial Zelnick, no less ideologically committed, is possessed of a wry sense of humor that keeps him in a state of emotional equilibrium even in the darkest moments of the Frost enterprise, when it looks as if Nixon is going to win his bid for public vindication.
Mr. Howard and Mr. Morgan have very astutely established Frost’s mercurial personality in advance by having him brazenly pick up Rebecca Hall’s all-too-willing Caroline Cushing on a Concorde flight from Australia to California. Indeed, the impression is given that Mr. Frost habitually makes passes at any lone and attractive woman on his many worldwide flights.
Nixon’s chief of staff, the retired and amply bemedalled U.S. Marine officer Jack Brennan, is played with worshipful solemnity by Kevin Bacon. The rest of the Nixon group includes former Nixon speechwriters Ken Khachigian (Gabriel Jarret) and Raymond Price (Jim Meskimen), as well as former White House aide and later television news star Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant). Patty McCormack makes a brief appearance as the fragile and ailing Pat Nixon. Toby Jones serves as an intermediary in the interview negotiations as the legendary Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar.
The interview sessions themselves take on the ferocity of ancient gladiatorial contests, though the two antagonists come to respect and admire the unleashed abilities of the other. Mr. Langella, in particular, strikes notes of pathos and vulnerability that make him both a worthy co-protagonist and a recognizable human being. Who ever knew back then that the day would come when we would actually miss “Tricky” Dick Nixon in the White House?
The production establishes an eerie semblance of authenticity through the seemingly casual cinematography of Salvatore Totino, the creative choice of backgrounds by production designer Michael Corenblith, and the non-jarring costume design by Daniel Orlandi, of the clothes people wore more than 30 years ago. There is even a joke shared between Nixon and Frost over the latter’s alleged predilection for “effeminate” Italian shoes.
With the awards season swirling around us, Mr. Langella and Mr. Sheen will be hard to overlook when all the prizes are dispensed. And the picture itself should be on many must-see and 10-best lists, all honors it richly deserves. Almost needless to say, I recommend Frost/Nixon highly to all my readers.