"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore ..."
-- Richard Nixon, on his 1962 loss to Pat Brown for the Governorship of California
That statement turned out, of course, not to be true; we would have Nixon to kick around for decades more. That statement also concealed a different truth, which is that Nixon -- the hunched, scowling, puritan-satyr of American politics -- could not only take a beating, but also dish one out. Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard's film adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play, kicks Nixon around, but it also lets him kick back, as TV personality (not journalist or reporter, but personality) David Frost faces Nixon in a series of 1977 interviews for an ambitious, expensive and poorly-planned multi-night TV broadcast. Why would Nixon agree to an on-camera inquisition? Because Frost paid him -- $600,000 -- for the chance to do so, and because Nixon thought it might be a chance to re-emerge from his exile after resigning the presidency in 1974. Two men, their careers in decline, circling each other for a shot at redemption: Frost (Michael Sheen) is wagering his fortune on the chance to re-make his reputation; Nixon (Frank Langella), with neither reputation or fortune, is desperate for a chance to escape infamy.
But Frost/Nixon is not simply the equivalent of Thunderdome for readers of The Nation, where two men enter and one man leaves. Morgan's script is smart enough to make sure there are things hidden under that clash, a quieter film about character and communication, modern media and ancient principles. And we also get the interview field of combat, which drapes the slick surface of modern manners over the kind of brute, bloody battle you normally see only in nature documentaries. The film, like Frost's interviews, is not merely about Watergate -- which is good, because we have, I should think, drained that well of venality fairly dry -- but instead about bigger issues of accountability and process and principle. Frost, stripped of all pretense, was asking Nixon a good question: Who the hell do you think you are? Nixon, stripped of all pretense, was asking an equally good question: Who the hell are you to ask?
The fact that there is a smart and subtle film under the fight-night spectacle of Frost and Nixon going head-to-head on secret bombings, crimes and misdemeanors and errors in judgment, though, does not mean that Frost/Nixon fails to deliver the sizzle with the steak, however. Like a boxing match, each party has their cornermen of researchers and handlers; Nixon has a Marine aide, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and a retinue of wise counsel, including the young Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant), while Frost has his old friend and producer John Birt (Matthew MacFayden) and journalists Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Their teams support each man as best they can, but when the lights are on and it's showtime -- which is both a vulgar metaphor and entirely accurate -- these opponents are on their own.
Langella reprises his stage work as Nixon, and while he scales down the notes and tones of a theatrical performance for the very different artistic dimensions of film, he does not dim the power of his performance. His Nixon rages and rants, flatters and cajoles, makes rude provocations while dismissing others as rude. But there are quieter moments in Langella's performance, too -- the turn of his head, the darting light in his eye, the lumpy shape of a grunted begrudging smile. Sheen also reprises his stage role, and while his performance is not as showy as Langella's -- or, more accurately, his character is the less famous member of the interview duo -- he still gets a chance to make something of it. Frost is a bit of a Harold Hill character -- sure things will come together, blowing off research sessions to appear at the premiere of big-screen musical comedies he's producing -- but Sheen shows us the mind behind the patter. Watching Nixon resign, Frost doesn't cluck disapprovingly or offer a sigh of relief; he asks "Why didn't he wait? It's 6 a.m. on the West coast; half his audience is still asleep. ..." After disastrous early going, Birt tries to cheer Frost up by putting things in context: "These interviews are always going to be around for future generations of academics and historians. ..." Frost, far more concerned with overnight ratings than any historical long view, grimaces: "That bad?" Frost/Nixon very specifically shows us that Frost was not just a dilettante and Nixon was not just a monster -- but it also gives us a little of that good, juicy, easy stuff to sink our teeth into, too.
Ron Howard's direction nicely opens up the stage play without breaking it; there are moments here of silence and stillness and darkness that would be impossible in the live theater, as well as bright, broad vistas of light and air that no stage manager could recreate. The production design is excellent as well; there's a simple wardrobe and prop change late in the film that resonates with laser-sharp accuracy as a man gives up his grip on power to instead hold a golf club, while early shots of Nixon looking to the ever-expanding seashore horizon while contemplating his increasingly narrowing options have a nice rueful, sharp tinge to them. A quick cut to a dropped clipboard -- which may as well be a gauntlet hurled down -- not only kicks a scene's energy to the next level but also reminds you you're not just watching the simplest possible iteration of a stage play, but instead a film that is being deliberately, willfully and carefully shaped, shot and cut.
Frost/Nixon may seem as contemporary as polyester leisure suits and wood-panel station wagons; what could Frost's interviews with Nixon say to our age? A lot, it turns out -- Frost/Nixon reminds us that real journalism is hard, but also that real journalism is where you find it, even in a "paycheck" interview where the subject was paid to appear, if the interrogator has both the facts and some guts on their side. It demonstrates the power of positive thinking and the danger of delusional daydreaming; both Frost and Nixon were unprepared for how much work their little sit-down was going to be on each their parts, and Frost/Nixon lets us see that. Frost/Nixon has the grainy, oiled-oak gravitas of an Oscar contender; it was fated to pretty much from the moment Howard announced his intention to bring the play to the screen. The good news for audiences is that there's some remarkably fine construction and real heft under the surface shine.