Frost/Nixon film review: rookie vs. swine in a war of the words
If you’re intrigued by politics, entertained by the art of good conversation and/or morbidly compelled by the villainous cohorts of the late, disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon, then Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon should make compelling viewing. If none of these tickle your fancy, don’t fret: Howard’s middle-of-the-road, studio friendly, multiplex-with-a-twist-of-art style promises as always to make it palatable. Not quite as palatable as The Da Vinci Code, though, and thank god for that.
Inspired by actual events and set in the summer of ’77, Frost/Nixon was penned by Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen, so it’s like totally legit. The premise clicks into gear when popular talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) watches TV footage of Richard Nixon and sees nothing but ratings.
For those unaware who this Nixon fellow is (what are you doing reading this site and why haven’t you seen Futurama?) we’ll simply say he’s like, totally a bad guy. In fact Nixon is one of the great crooked fiends of U.S. politics; the fattened, most prized swine of them all. When the film begins Nixon has recently been busted for the Watergate scandal and forced to resign as President. Frost pays him an inordinate amount of cash (like $600,000 big ones) for a lengthy interview program, which, as it turns out, none of the TV networks want to buy. Ruffled but determined not to show it, Frost goes ahead with the deal.
Nixon signs on because he wants the moolah but more importantly longs to salvage his reputation. On the other hand, Frost wants to score big by landing a good show – preferably one in which Nixon says or admits something he doesn’t want to and keeps the spin and waffling to a minimum. We understand that only one of them can win, and Frost is clearly the underdog: a guy like him taking on a beast like Nixon in conversation is like a novice boxer jumping in the ring with Mike Tyson, or a pre-schooler trying to beat Barrack Obama in a speech writing contest.
Thus it’s Frost/Nixon, or Frost Vs. Nixon, or, yes, Rookie Vs Swine. To build tension Howard cushions his war of words with sports movie shtick: there are early blows, risky plays, a pep talk from an unlikely motivator and a training montage to boot. Kevin Bacon, who plays Nixon’s right-hand-man, sounds a lot like a coach when he instructs the disgraced president to give “long answers, control the space (and) don’t let him in.” When Frost scores a blow, it’s visceral, inspiring stuff: I felt an urge to stand up in the cinema and start a Mexican wave, and I probably would have, had they served me beer instead of cola.
Howard intersperses the story with fake documentary interview footage, and similar to the effect these direct-to-camera spiels had on the Truman Capote biopic Infamous (2006), they detract from rather than enhance the film’s realism. They’re superfluous to the story and should have been the first bits edited out; paradoxically these faux-doco elements are the film’s most obvious contrivances, though thankfully they drop off as the plot gains momentum, so no great damage is done.
Frost/Nixon strikes an otherwise comfortable balance between realism and Hollywood drama, which is fashioned to a very different beat than the mundane storytelling rhythms of real life. It helps that the performances are all strong: Sheen, who looks like a mix of David Spade and a young Graham Kennedy, easily convinces us that Frost is loaded ambition and gumption but somewhat clueless and under-qualified (or is he?) while Frank Langella is great as Nixon, bringing to the role much huff and puff and managing that familiar voice and uber arrogant demeanour with silky smooth skill.
Frost/Nixon is a long way from dry historical re-enactment, and with Ronny H at the helm this was never going to be a surprise. Howard conjures a surprisingly exciting spectacle, juicing from the premise nearly enough competitive tension to justify that Mexican wave. Plastic horn trumpets and cheer leaders, naturally, would be the next step, and while no-one in the crowd, er, cinema, is likely to stand up and chant “gimme an N, gimme an I, gimme an X…”, the film’s deceptively complex ending illustrates that sometimes even the most mendacious monsters, on very special occasions, most of them shortly before the end credits, are allowed to be a little bit human too.
Frost/Nixon’s Australian theatrical release: 26 December 2008