You know, Richard Nixon has always been something of a mystery to me. Coming from a generation that never experienced Watergate and the resulting political fallout first hand, certain aspects of this enigmatic man were lost on me. What little I knew of him came via his less-than-flattering public image - a sullen, aloof and paranoid loner, mooching around the White House with unshaven jowls and a sweaty brow as he imagined his enemies (real or not) plotting to derail his road to greatness.
Thus, I came into Frost/Nixon as a bit of a blank slate, and in many ways, I'm glad I did.
In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and threats of impeachment, Richard Nixon becomes the first and only President in US history to resign while still in office. Absolved of all wrong-doing by his successor Gerald Ford, he retires to a life of virtual obscurity on the West Coast. But the wilderness doesn't sit well with the former President, and he soon begins a public relations comeback effort.
In steps David Frost, a lightweight but massively ambitious British talk show host notorious for his playboy lifestyle, who manages to put together a deal to interview Nixon about his life, his Presidency and, most importantly, about Watergate. Believing Frost to be a lightweight on the political stage rather than a serious investigative journalist, and seening an opportunity to rebuild his reputation, Nixon agrees.
What follows is a verbal and intellectual battle between the two men as they fight for their respective causes - Frost to uncover the truth and Nixon to protect it. With both of their careers on the line, neither will pull any punches. But there can only be one winner.
The thing that undoubtedly makes Ron Howard's big screen stage play adaptation so compelling are the excellent performances from leads Sheen and Lengella as Frost and Nixon, respectively. Sheen, the consumate impersonator, does an excellent job as Frost, mimicking his mannerisms and speech patterns perfectly.
He also brings home just how much Frost gambled on these interviews - he had invested all of his personal finances, not to mention borrowing money from friends in order to make the deal a reality. At times, the pressure on him is almost overwhelming.
Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell give solid supporting performances as Nixon's Chief of Staff and Frost's head researcher respectively, and Rebecca Hall is there to provide decent eye candy.
But the real star of the show is without doubt Frank Langella as the restless, tormented Richard Nixon. Even with his stooped posture and greying wig, he doesn't look or even sound much like the former President, but he somehow embodies everything vital about Nixon - his self destructive combination of intellectual brilliance and self doubt, defiance and regret, arrogance and self hatred. In every scene he's in, he literally is Nixon.
In one of the most compelling scenes of the movie, a confident Nixon has managed to outplay Frost in every interview, leaving only Watergate still to be resolved. But even then his demons get the better of him, and in a drunken late night phone call to Frost's hotel room, he taunts his nemesis and bitterly rails against his perceived enemies in The Establishment. More than anything, this one scene gives the greatest insight into the mind that was capable of such great achievements and such terrible mistakes.
Ultimately, Frost, filled with fresh determination in the wake of his phone call from Nixon, comes into the final interview focussed and ready. And at last, he's able to do what no Supreme Court judge ever could - elicit a confession from the former President.
Frost/Nixon is one of those rare films that I find hard to fault, not because it is flawless, but rather because I enjoyed it so much that it's problems almost pale into insignificance. If I was to be truly critical, I'd question the inclusion of Rebecca Hall, since she really doesn't do much except pout and look pretty - she's there to balance out a largely all-male cast, nothing more. And from a more historical perspective, I know this movie exaggerates certain elements of the Frost/Nixon interviews for the sake of drama (Nixon was in fact convinced by his own people to make the admission of guilt), but I really don't care about these problems, because I just like this film.
Ron Howard's take on this compelling political drama is well worth watching, both for those who lived through this turbulent period in American political life and those, like me, who see it in retrospect.