Adapted from the play of the same name, Frost/Nixon chronicles the real-life efforts of British television impresario David Frost to score the first interview with Richard Nixon following the disgraced president’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are excellent in reprising their stage roles as Nixon and Frost, and the production value is high. But director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan take far too long to reach the primary conflict — the battle of wits between Frost and Nixon on the fourth and final day of the interviews. The confrontation is interestingly framed as an intellectual boxing match — Frost must force Nixon to admit his guilt and apologize for Watergate, or be seen as the man who let Nixon off the hook.
The film has garnered Golden Globe nominations for best drama, best director, and best actor for Langella, and critics such as the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers have slathered on the praise. But while the story will appeal to political junkies, mainstream audiences will be less than enthralled.
Initially, Sheen’s Frost plays like an amusing cross between Austin Powers and Robert Downey Jr.’s unscrupulous reporter in Natural Born Killers. But Frost gains dramatic weight from the stress of investing his career reputation, and every dollar he has, to get this scoop. If he fails, he’s ruined. It’s an interesting character arc, though not quite enough to fill two hours of screen time. Kevin Bacon is strong as Nixon aide Jack Brennan, and Rebecca Hall is stunningly gorgeous as Frost’s girlfriend, though she doesn’t get much to do besides look pretty.
Howard teeters on the edge of the same pitfall Frost was desperately trying to avoid — allowing Nixon to skirt his crimes against humanity and save face in the court of public opinion. Moments such as Nixon advising Frost to marry his girlfriend because she’s from Monaco, where they pay no taxes, humanize the ex-president, but beyond equating his legacy with political scandal, the film never really takes Nixon to task. Nixon haters anticipating venomous screeds against the 37th president, a la Hunter S. Thompson, may feel justifiably short-changed. In the final analysis, Frost/Nixon is worth checking out on HBO, but it feels too small for the big screen. •