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Frost/Nixon Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 20 January 2009 13:58
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Matthew MacFayden, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon
Certificate: 15

Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own stage play, Frost/Nixon is a cinematic retelling of the television interviews between David Frost (Sheen) and ex-President Richard Nixon (Langella). The juxtaposition of mediums at first seems absurd; why not leave what is essentially a two-hander in the theatre, where its terse encounters can have the greatest impact?


But director Ron Howard continues regardless, only agreeing to helm if the original leads reprise their roles. It’s not hard to see why: Sheen and Langella play off each other brilliantly, the former superficial but somehow layered, the latter powerful with an imposing authority. The disgraced Nixon may be on the ropes, but his calculating never ceases, determined to manipulate Frost into producing a puffball piece of sycophancy.

Three interviews out of the way, covering soft topics such as ‘Nixon the Man’, and Frost has failed miserably. His producer, John Birt (Macfayden), is not happy. Neither is his left-leaning researcher, James Reston Jr (Rockwell). There is only one session to go: Watergate. With it, Frost is determined to achieve notoriety (“success in America is like nowhere else”) as he swans about town with the pretty Caroline (Hall) on his arm. Behind the scenes, his charming facade fades as he desperately rings round the networks to secure distribution for a deal financed by his own, shallow pockets.

Across the table, Nixon’s bullish money-grabbing is evident. Colluding with his cynical agent, Swifty Lazar (Jones), his greedy grasping often leads to laugh out loud lines: “you should marry that girl. She’s from Monte Carlo. No tax laws.” Alongside Tricky Dicky is the equally shady henchman Jack Brennan (Bacon), whose fawning devotion brings some pathos to the Nixon camp.

Morgan’s script keeps things well-paced, chopping up the onscreen encounters with frantic plotting, mind games and a frequent use of boxing metaphors; although clichéd, they’re not entirely out of place as the camera circles the two fighters in a manner reminiscent of Scorsese. Is this really the same man who brought us The Da Vinci Code? Moving from hokum to history, Howard’s direction is surprisingly taut; at its best when only two heads are talking, Frost/Nixon delights in its lack of action. Like Clooney’s understated Good Night and Good Luck, it all rests upon the delivery of a few choice lines. Fortunately, the actors certainly know their stuff – it’s a treat to see Hall and MacFayden get a chance to hold their own against these high-profile principals.

So, after factional (if you will) TV movies like The Queen, why put this on the big screen? The answer lies in television, what you miss on the stage: the reductive power of the close-up. James Wreston Jr puts it best: “Frost gave the public something they had never seen before: Nixon’s face, ravaged with self-loathing”. When we see Nixon’s mug up close, features contorting with his admission of regret, Peter Morgan's dramatisation really comes to life.




In an age of online wizardry, Frost/Nixon revels in the clout of the camera. This thrilling tele-journalism makes for sublime cinema.