If there's a single misstep in Ron Howard
's expertly calibrated Frost/Nixon, it eluded me.
Howard's spellbinding adaptation of Peter Morgan's Tony-nominated stage drama understands the politics that manipulate Washington and Hollywood. It comprehends how many interviews are won and lost long before the Q&A begins. It figures out the best way to transition an airtight theatrical production to the roomier silver screen (giving the elements plenty of room to breathe). And -- most importantly -- it illustrates the intimidating power of television, which creates and destroys legacies on a daily basis. Article continues below
Television was never kind to President Richard M. Nixon. It's widely recognized that a disheveled Nixon's poor "performance" in the televised 1960 presidential debate contributed to his eventual loss to John F. Kennedy. Later, when in office, intense media scrutiny by the chief television networks kept a white-hot spotlight on the Watergate scandal -- and forecast our current 24-hour news cycle. Finally, Nixon's eventual resignation from the Oval Office was televised to an attentive audience, a first in U.S. history.
Frost/Nixon takes place after Nixon's historic exit from the presidency, when British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen
) pitched an idea to his producers: a series of interviews with the embattled ex-president (Frank Langella
) that would put both personalities back on their respective maps.
The project should have been laughed off. Frost largely handled celebrity puff piece interviews for his UK and Australian-based outlets, and Nixon was turning down major press opportunities left and right. But several factors came into play for this event. Nixon's agent, "Swifty" Lazar (Toby Jones
), successfully negotiated a huge fee for Nixon -- which came out of Frost's pocket when the U.S. networks showed little interest. And Nixon's chief advisor, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon
), implemented strict ground rules which he believed would protect Nixon from embarrassment and even set him on a path back to Washington. Frost's team, meanwhile, treated the interviews as the chance to give Nixon the trial he never received. And few could account for the enormous egos and competitive natures shared by both Nixon and Frost.
Sheen and Langella originated their roles on the London stage in August 2006 before moving the act to Broadway a year later. Howard's wisest decision in pre-production was luring these vets to the feature film, a tougher task than anticipated. Langella hinted in an interview that he doesn't believe he was the first choice for Howard's Frost/Nixon film. Having seen his performance, it's clear he is the only choice to play the shrewd, coy, and playfully manipulative statesman. Langella doesn't impersonate Nixon. He inhabits the man's skin to find the character within the caricature. Nixon's a fascinating part. His impatient need to control every situation hangs over Frost/Nixon, while his craving to succeed -- or, at least, to be considered a success -- drives the heavyweight bout between this slighted duo.
Frost/Nixon is a rock-solid historical crowd pleaser, a showcase for subtle yet mesmerizing dramatic performances that whip up obscene amounts of suspense for a story whose ending is never in question. Morgan adapts his play into a precise chess match between egotistical power mongers constantly angling for the upper hand. Howard, himself a product of television long before his directorial career reached its peak, finds inventive methods of conveying television's impact on the careers of these men. The ensemble, from top to bottom, is flawless.
All that said, this production of Frost/Nixon -- and any production of the stage show -- will be judged by the actors playing the men in the title. Howard turns them loose in a pivotal scene, a late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost that takes place on the eve of their final scheduled debate. Nixon, allegedly after a few cocktails, drops his guard momentarily to goad Frost and chip away at his armor. "The limelight can only shine on one of us," Nixon warns. But it's this scene -- coupled with the entirety of the project -- that will earn both of these actors an invitation to the Academy Awards in February. And perhaps, in Langella's case, a seat at the winner's table.