Frost/NixonDirected by Ron HowardStarring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell and Kevin BaconRated R*7.5*
Goes well with: Cinderella Man, The Queen, Nixon
Let's call Frost/Nixon a rematch for Ron Howard.
Why? Well, you might remember Howard's 2005 film Cinderella Man, which starred Russell Crowe as hard-luck depression-era boxer Gentleman Jim Braddock, who went from working on New York's docks to winning the heavyweight-championship belt. More likely you don't remember it, because even though it was one of Howard's better movies, it was knocked out at the Oscars and is about as memorable as any of Lennox Lewis' bouts. Frost / Nixon is his second fight picture.
It's true—even though Frost/Nixon is about the interviews that took place between then-lightweight talk-show host David Frost and the disgraced former president, Howard treats it like a boxing match, two foes going toe-to-toe for 12 rounds. You've got Frost hoping to land a blow that'll earn him fame, fortune and acclaim and Nixon dancing around the ring, avoiding the questions.
Written by Peter Morgan and based on his own Broadway play, the format actually works quite well, because boxing isn't just about what goes on inside the ring. So much of it is about the promotion of the fight, and much of the film is about the lead-in to the interviews, how Frost went to the mat, ponying up hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money without a network sponsor, and how both Frost and Nixon saw it as an opportunity to achieve some form of championship. Frost, now something of a legend himself, saw the chance to take on someone with more weight than the puff pieces he'd been doing, while Nixon and his handlers viewed the sessions as a way to exonerate himself, legitimize the positive aspects of his presidency (surprisingly, take away Watergate and Vietnam, and Nixon did some solid stuff) and perhaps return to the halls of power.
Of course, there are no real punches thrown in Frost / Nixon. Each fighter has his people in his corner—Nixon had Diane Sawyer (Kate Grant) and his chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), while Frost was backed by his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfayden) and researchers James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt).
Frost is the good guy who is in over his head, an underdog, an unlikely opponent who is intellectually outmatched and who never would have seen the inside of the ring were it not for his fat wad of bills. Both Reston and Zelnick desperately hoped to stick it to the ex-president and give him the public trial he never had, but as the early sessions find Nixon weaving and dodging, they start to realize that not only are their reputations on the line, they could also end up creating as much of a pardon for Nixon as Gerald Ford ever did.
For all the (deserved) attention Sean Penn is getting for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, Langella's work as Richard Nixon is equally masterful. In many ways, it's a more challenging role because he's putting a face on an iconic figure.
Every moment, every nuance, everything he does as the former president is deliberate and manipulative. In one scene, Nixon drunk dials Frost—it's a contrived idea, but one that spurs the film to its final interview—and rants, and it's simply one of the best pieces of acting anyone has delivered this year, as Langella's Nixon sheds any sheen of respectability, a bitter old man finally showing his true nature.
I'm not a huge fan of Ron Howard's films. They're usually well made, but I often leave them with a feeling of insincerity. In Frost / Nixon, however, Howard is wisely restrained—in the film's climactic moment, when Nixon gives Frost the closest thing to an acknowledgment of guilt, there is no stirring, swelling music telling you how to feel.
Instead, there's silence, and it's hard not to feel sorry for Nixon as he realizes the enormity of his crimes. And that's the key, because you have to pull for both of them to make it work. This time, Howard makes it work, ably assisted by Langella's Oscar-caliber turn. His Nixon is laid out, bare, a onetime emperor wearing no clothes at all.