‘Frost/Nixon’ movie review: Frank Langella commands as Richard Nixon

A compelling story well-told: Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon fleshes out the famous 1977 TV interview between British talk-show host David Frost and former US president Richard Nixon, his first public interview following his resignation over the Watergate scandal. 

Frost/Nixon has scored 5 Academy Award nominations, which include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay; it may not win any of these, but it’s my favorite of the five films nominated for Best Pic. 

The film is told from the perspective of Frost (played by Michael Sheen), who was a highly unlikely candidate to deliver a probing interview of Nixon. He’s the host of a popular talk show in Australia in 1977, but looking for…something more. 

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has said goodbye to America with a wave and a smile, never taking responsibility for the Watergate affair, and disappeared from the public spotlight. Why does Frost care? Well, he doesn’t, really. But he sees an opportunity to make an impression, and he grabs it – risking all the money he has, and some that he doesn’t. 

Nixon agrees to the interview – his first since his resignation – on the assumption that it’ll be a fluff piece and he’ll be able to control the conversation. 

Nixon aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) stands in his corner, while Frost’s assistants, which include Americans James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), prepare an incisive interview that demands an apology. But during the recording, everything lies on Frost’s shoulders. 

The majority of Frost/Nixon is a verbal game of chess between the two leads. Given the amount of time we spend just watching Frost and Nixon talk (not just during the interview, but before & after as well), the film simply wouldn’t work without excellent lead performances; both actors, thankfully, are terrific. 

Langella has the showier role as Nixon, and is so good as we almost end up rooting for him (as long as there is a little ambiguity, the strength of a performance is directly related to the sympathy we feel for a character – see Ben Kingsley in Death of a Maiden). 

But Sheen is equally good as Frost, a flawed character who takes on a bigger responsibility than he’s prepared for. Peter Morgan’s script, based on his play, is an incisive look at both of the characters; he also wrote The Queen, Stephen Frears’ not-dissimilar look at the Queen of England. 

Director Howard keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, and the technical credits are first-rate throughout. I do have one real gripe with the film. In faux-documentary scenes, some of the supporting players look back on the events and underscore every point the movie has made, stripping Frost/Nixon of any hint of subtlety or ambiguity. 

These scenes stop the film just short of being exceptional; it’s a tired framing device that’s only a step above having the main characters look back on an important event in their lives. 

Biggest compliment I can pay the film: with renewed interest in the subject, I hunted down the original David Frost/Richard Nixon interview and was richly rewarded. 

However, the interview is clearly not as win/lose as Howard’s film makes it out to be and I missed the ambiguity even more. Still, knowing the backstory from Frost/Nixon makes the original interview that much more compelling.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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