Movie Review: 'Frost/Nixon'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

Neither the title nor the subject matter prepares you for the pure fun of "Frost/Nixon." Ron Howard's movie is based on Peter Morgan's play, which was based on the 1977 television interviews between British journalist David Frost and the disgraced former president Richard Nixon. You expect something dry, historical and probably contrived. But you get a delicious contest of wits, brilliant acting and a surprisingly gripping narrative -- no less dramatic even though the results are a foregone conclusion.

The premise of Morgan's play, which opened in London in 2006, is that Frost and Nixon desperately needed each other when they sat for a series of in-depth interviews three years after Nixon's resignation. Frost was deemed a lightweight with a Vaseline smile, and bet his future career (and his own money) on a blockbuster television special. Nixon wanted rehabilitation, and gambled that Frost would lob him softballs.

Howard's cinematic treatment deftly exploits very conventional narrative techniques without one ever being quite aware of them. Early in the film, one of Frost's researchers (James Reston Jr., played like a tenacious college agitator by Sam Rockwell) suggests that the whole project be seen as a televised trial of the former president: Frost, as grand inquisitor, will give Nixon the public trial that was preempted by President Ford's pardon.

This is a subtle acknowledgment that the storytelling will borrow heavily from the tropes of the courtroom drama, an overused but essential format for dramatizing ideas in a medium that relishes action and spectacle. And so Frost and Nixon are presented as verbal gladiators: the former not used to combat in the big leagues, the latter perhaps too cocky about scoring a knockout blow on the well-coiffed, honey-tongued greenhorn.

Man vs. Man, as they taught you in junior high school literature courses. But it works.

As Nixon, Frank Langella is perfection. The character is generated from the inside out, not predicated on surface imitation or caricature. A respectable effort by the makeup people transforms Langella into the jowly, sweaty-lipped and scowling man America remembers from those fraught days when the his impeachment hearing spectacle punctuated the afternoon soap operas. But Langella's characterization is based on a far more deeply meditated sense of the man, whose craving for power, love and legacy leads to a strange mix of malice and charm.

"Did you do any fornicating?" he asks Frost moments before one of the interviews begins. This surprisingly vulgar "how was your weekend?" gambit rattles Frost, portrayed by Michael Sheen as a shallow playboy with a profound hollowness in his ambitious soul. It's the line that will tag this movie in the memory, not just because it shows Nixon at his most disarming (a word that suggests both charisma and combat), but because it captures the hybrid tone of the film itself. It has its high and low pleasures, and the balance is subtle.

Perhaps the courtroom drama is pushed to tenuous lengths. These were, after all, just interviews. Dr. Johnson used to ask his dinner guests, "Shall we talk for victory, or truth?" Good interviewers aren't necessarily prosecutors. An interesting interview can be more valuable than an emotional or dramatic one.

And it's a bit disconcerting when Nixon makes a late-night call, just before the final and most important interview, to tell Frost: "I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us."

Not true. There's a lot of limelight out there, and what mattered was (for Frost) good television, and (for Nixon) a chance to clarify the record. To suggest there can be only one winner is to take the courtroom setup too far.

But by the point that phone call arrives, the movie is deep into another trope: the king-slayer. The writing is so good, the acting so powerful, that the film goes well beyond the courtroom drama into the territory of the classic history play. Nixon is Henry II, the fallen leader, and his call to Frost comes from a larger emotional dungeon than mere political disgrace. Frost, the young prince, the high-living Hal who needs to sober up if he's to become Henry V, begins to take his quest seriously.

It isn't Shakespeare, but it is drama at a level one doesn't often get in the movies. The turn to the mythic also explains the power of Langella's portrayal: It is based on an almost unshakable and imperial dignity built into the fiber of Nixon's suit-on-the-beach propriety. To much of the country, this was fustiness, tangible proof that Nixon was not of their era. But to others, who felt the settled world of right and wrong teetering before unprecedented social upheavals, Nixon was indeed their father's Oldsmobile.

In a performance that transcends idle concerns about whether it's appropriate to humanize a villain such as Nixon, Langella manages to show the power of Nixon's formality. Yes, he could cuss like a stevedore, and he was as crass as they come in his political calculations, but he had been the president, and that courtliness was deep in his bones.

The most obvious of the film's conventions, and the best hidden, is that of the standard biopic. "Frost/Nixon" covers a lot of ground, from the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia to the minutiae of Watergate. It's not a cradle-to-grave portrayal, but hidden in plain sight is an important primer (for a new generation) on all things Nixon. It isn't pretty. And it's disturbing how insistently Nixon refuses to stay in the tidy boxes we've made for him, whether it's constitutional villain and war criminal, or misunderstood intellectual with powerful enemies. We may debate yet about his service to the country. But he's clearly become an essential figure for a deeper kind of service, rattling about in his self-made chains in the depths of the political imagination.

Frost/Nixon (122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong language.

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