There was something centrally disreputable about the Frost-Nixon interviews back in 1977.
The former president had resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal, but because he received a pardon from his successor in the Oval Office, he never stood trial or admitted wrongdoing — until three years later, when he broke his public silence on Watergate in interviews with British talk-show host David Frost.
Those interviews were among the most-watched news programs in TV history — but they were suspect as journalism, not least because Nixon got paid a lot of money for doing them.
And because Frost was a lightweight TV personality who wasn't even from the U.S., no one really expected him to outwit a seasoned politico who was — not for nothing — known as Tricky Dick.
Even Frost's researchers had their doubts. They wanted to give Nixon the trial he'd never had, but the wily old politician ran rings around his questioner in the first few days of interviews. Despair set in quickly for everyone — except Frost.
Frost/Nixon was originally written for the stage, where it depended so much on the notion of a David and Goliath mismatch that it could almost have been called Froth-Nixon.
That's less true on screen, though there's still something a little glib about Peter Morgan's script, which spends an awful lot of time making Michael Sheen's David Frost out to be a comic dilettante. Opposite him, Frank Langella's Nixon doesn't look merely presidential, but kind of Shakespearean — a tragic figure, rather than a guy who covered up a burglary.
Happily, director Ron Howard takes a quasi-documentary approach that has the effect of giving Frost more heft on screen — there's news footage, plus behind-the-scenes shots of TV monitors, all conspiring to make it clear that he's better at using this emotionally cool medium than Nixon, especially in the interview's big showdown.
Langella's Nixon isn't an impersonation — you could find other actors who'd do that guttural growl more persuasively — but he and Sheen are great foils for each other as the old man's defenses finally begin to crumble. Regardless, it's not their sparring but the presentation of it that's meant to grab you.
Because a case is being made here that it wasn't really Frost who did Nixon in: It was Nixon's old nemesis, the TV camera — that unblinking eye, capturing every bead of perspiration, every nervous shift of posture, every furrow in a guilt-ridden presidential brow.
It's a case the stage version of Frost/Nixon made an intellectual argument for, buttressed by a wall of TV screens. But theater being a medium of words, and film a medium of images — well, here, the case is made visceral, in merciless close-ups blown up so much larger than life. (Recommended)