- Rated R
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All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
on Howard has directed some of the finest historical dramas of the past 15 years. “Apollo 13.” “Cinderella Man.” “A Beautiful Mind.” And you might as well add “Frost/Nixon” to the list, because it might just be his best yet. Staged like a no-holds-barred boxing match between its two stars, the movie blazes through its tension-filled 122-minute runtime so fast that you almost forget to breathe. The fact that this all happens while its lead characters spend most of the time sitting around and talking is an achievement of its own, but while Howard may be the one calling the shots, it’s the people in front of the camera (namely, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen) that make “Frost/Nixon” one of the absolute must-see films of the year.
Adapted by Peter Morgan from his award-winning play of the same name, the film tells the tale of the events leading up to (and including) the Frost/Nixon interviews that aired in 1977 and became the most-watched television news special in American history. At that time, Richard Nixon (Langella) had just resigned from office and been “exiled” to California, and he was desperate for some additional income. Having already brokered a book deal for his official memoirs, Nixon jumps at the chance to make $600,000 for a television interview to be conducted by British talk show host David Frost (Sheen).
Seeing the interview as an opportunity to publicly exonerate himself and even win back some admiration from his fellow Americans, Nixon agrees to the deal. Frost, meanwhile, gathers a team of crack investigators – including London TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfayden), ABC News chief Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and political author James Renton Jr. (Sam Rockwell) – to prepare him for the 12-day interview session, all while trying to find advertisers to help pay for the self-financed production. As expected, Nixon talks his way out of every tough question thrown at him, but when Frost turns the tables on the final day of interviews, he gets the one thing from Nixon that no other journalist could ever manage: an admission of guilt.
Seeing as how this information has been available to the public for over 30 years, you wouldn’t think that “Frost/Nixon” would be as suspenseful as it is, but Howard really milks the tension between the two men for all it's worth, and it works wonders for the finished product. The decision to mix documentary-style interviews throughout the narrative also helps move the story along nicely, and Peter Morgan has done an incredible job adapting what many might have considered an unfilmable stage production. Though it takes about an hour for the interviews to get underway, Morgan’s script offers plenty of buildup to the inevitable showdown so that when it finally does arrive, it’s even more electrifying than you anticipated.
In fact, while you could probably describe the film as a political thriller of sorts (after all, it’s both political and thrilling), the interview portion of the movie really does feel like a boxing match, with Nixon and Frost trading jabs in the ring. At one point in the film, Nixon’s former chief of staff, Jeff Brennan (Kevin Bacon), even comes over to the former president during a break in taping to offer advice (“Long answers, control the space, don’t let him in”) like a corner man in an important match. The whole movie is meant to feel like a duel between two men who couldn’t be any more different, and it’s one of many reasons why the film succeeds as well as it does.
Of course, the main reason is the award-worthy performances from its two stars. Michael Sheen has built a career playing characters in movies written by Peter Morgan, and while his David Frost isn’t quite as memorable as his Tony Blair, he’s still a formidable opponent for Frank Langella. Nevertheless, the veteran actor commands the film with his pitch-perfect portrayal of the 37th president and virtually guarantees himself a spot on this year’s Oscar ballot. What’s strange is that Langella doesn’t even resemble Nixon at first, but the more time you spend with him, the more he begins to melt into the role. It’s an amazing transformation that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated – even if it isn’t quite as jaw-dropping as Josh Brolin’s turn as George W. Bush. Consider it a sign of the film’s strength, then, that “Frost/Nixon” manages to be a far more entertaining and memorable film. It’s not that “W.” didn’t accomplish what it set out to do, but “Frost/Nixon” does it so well that you’ll want to watch it unfold all over again the moment the movie ends.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The Blu-ray release of “Frost/Nixon” is better than most people probably expected considering its poor showing at the box office and the Oscars, but Universal has outdone themselves yet again with a solid collection of bonus material. Leading the pack is an audio commentary by director Ron Howard that is both informative and insightful, while the in-depth making-of featurette covers all of the usual details (casting, production design and costumes) as well as a few behind-the-scenes stories about the cast regarding their work on the film. Blu-ray owners also get exclusive extras like “Discovering Secrets,” a short featurette about the real-life people and locations involved in the film, and a picture-in-picture video track with even more cast and crew interviews and archive footage from Nixon’s time in office.