ACADEMICS are going to love Frost/Nixon. Once this masterpiece reaches DVD, universities will order multiple copies and, for years, film and politics students will find themselves tasked, just as they already are with All The President’s Men, with considering its implications.
They'll be asked about its role in both in fictionalising an important event in political history, and its relationship with the media, and so American citizens. They’ll be to reflect on how those same people viewed their outgoing Commander-in-Chief, George W Bush, at the time of the movie's release: a man who at least had the comfort of knowing that he managed to survive through two whole terms, despite ending with an approval rating even lower than this film's co-subject.
The film explains just how chat show host David Frost, who, in Peter Morgan’s script, is considered a lightweight, accomplish what no venerated member of the journalistic establishment was able to: coax disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon into admitting his misdeeds in the Watergate affair and, more than that, confess his betrayal of the American people. This isn’t just a great docu-drama, it’s like a great boxing film, the underdog taking blows in the early rounds before finally breaking the implacable opponent, but with words instead of punches, never completely jettisoning intellectual rigour and thematic depth in favour of low blows.
Morgan takes time to explain who these two individuals are, and why they’re choosing to take up the fight. During the exposition-heavy first hour, Frost is shown as still maintaining a playboy lifestyle. His career was in freefall but is a bit of a bore, he was afraid of losing the trappings of fame.
Nixon, on the other hand, has entered the political wilderness, having gone from diplomatic talks with China to negotiating the fee for his autobiography, an intellectual powerhouse who simply misunderstood the responsibilities of his office. Both had something to gain from the interview - a reinvigoration of their personal reputations as they oscillate between celebrity and infamy.
Having already inhabited the characters of Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams on screen, Michael Sheen, as Frost, begins the film in full imitation mode, the near catchphrase and the nasal delivery, then he dials down the mannerisms so that though we’re always aware that this is supposed to be the man who presented That Was The Week That Was, it’s never a caricature.
As with his previous commemoration of the Apollo 13 mission, director Ron Howard is able to produce an intense drama from a known event by emphasising the lesser known details. Some might not have realised that the producer of this original TV adventure was Liverpool's John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) who brought the internal market to the BBC under Thatcher.
As sponsors and broadcasters drop in and out and Frost draws the ire of his researchers (played by the surprisingly understated Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt playing the same son-of-a bitch he always does) who scream that he’s not taking this self-made assignment professionally enough, especially with the constant distraction of a new girl (a luminous Rebecca Hall).
In opening out the film, much like old Hollywood adaptations, writer Morgan retains the intimate atmosphere of theatre by keeping the majority of the scenes in private, intimate spaces like plane carriages and hotel rooms, and Howard frames most of his shots in close up like the framing of the interview itself, dragging it from the stage into the grammar of television, and with none of the incoherent camera work and editing that some directors are tempting to use when faced with long scenes filled with dialogue (eg, W). He also beefs up some of the supporting figures, providing Kevin Bacon with his best role in years as a Nixon aide.
Having provided all of this set up, Howard then steps back and allows his actors the space to recreate the electricity that must have existed not only during the original stage run, but also in that suburban sitting room during the 70s as Frost finally wielded the investigative dexterity you suspect he always had the capacity for and has shown since, attempting to demolish an adversary who is dashed him around the ring – or in this case the space between two cheap sitting room chairs.
We’re captivated, and that is the achievement of the play and now this film. We know the outcome, we know this is just the story of a television interview and yet we’re hanging on every word.
Frost/Nixon is now on general release9/10