LFF 2008: Frost/Nixon

The film version of Peter Morgan‘s play about the Nixon interviews conducted by David Frost in 1977 made me a little nervous. 

As someone who was a huge admirer of the London stage production back in 2006, I had concerns that many of qualities that made it work so brilliantly on stage could be ironed out for the big screen.

However, it is to the film’s great credit that director Ron Howard and Morgan (who wrote the screenplay) have not only preserved the insight and charm of the play but made it work in a different medium. 

For those not familiar with the story, it explores how ambitious English talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) persuaded the disgraced former US president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) to a series of taped interviews nearly three years after his resignation. 

They culminated in a dramatic admission by the 39th president that he had essentially betrayed his country. What is particularly interesting about Morgan’s version is the way it shows the incredible tensions and ironies behind the scenes of what is now a famous piece of television history. 

Whilst Nixon was resigning in August 1974, Frost was presenting a very light-hearted talk show in Australia – one sequence shows Nixon pondering Frost’s offer whilst the presenter himself is filming a low budget item in Sydney about an escapologist.

It also shows the window of opportunity opened up for Frost by the US media, who were reluctant to pay the former President for a news interview and felt that Frost was something of a lightweight when it came to asking the tough questions. 

All the major networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) turned Frost down and he was forced use some of his own money to finance the project. 

Professionally and personally he had a lot at stake and much of the script’s power comes from contrasting two men looking to reignite their careers in the form of these televised interviews. 

The stage version managed to brilliantly tease out the contradictions and characters of both men and Sheen and Langella were both outstanding in their roles. 

Thankfully Howard has managed to preserve the power of their portrayals and although conventional Hollywood wisdom would have been to cast bigger names, the decision to stick with the actors who knew these characters so well has proved to be absolutely correct. 

Sheen does a superb technical impression of Frost but also conveys the charm and drive that made the interviews happen, whilst Langella gets beneath the infamous veneer of  Nixon, showing us how formidable yet fragile he could be. 

The supporting cast are uniformly excellent: Matthew Macfadyen as John BirtOliver Platt as Bob Zelnick, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, all convince in their roles as key aides to the two central characters. 

Also notable is the vivid period feel, with the costumes and sets adding an all encompassing sense of realism that the theatre can’t quite provide.

With his cinematographer Salvadore Totino, Howard has also opted for a more intimate approach with the camera usually staying quite close to characters rather than giving us lots of establishing shots of the Californian setting.

It is worth noting that some liberties with actual events have been taken – Frost himself has highlighted that Nixon’s famous confessional answer didn’t come at the end of filming and that a crucial sequence prior to that never actually happened. 

Although this leaves some debate about Morgan’s approach to history, which he has achieved huge success with in recent years scripting The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, it does make for powerful drama as well as demonstrating how slippery remembering events can be.

It remains to be seen how this will do at the box office, but despite the high brow nature of the material, there is a surprisingly accessible quality on display here. 

The genial nature of Frost’s ambition and the politically incorrect tone to Nixon’s stubbornness help make both characters a compelling double act. 

What might seem like a dry, talky period piece is brought to life by the energy and charisma of the two performers. As they duel in front of the cameras about Vietnam and Watergate, they joust off it about Italian shoes, cheeseburgers and women. 

It is this surreal mix of the personal and political that lies at the heart of why the play and this film version work so well. 

In the fictionalized details of the Frost/Nixon interviews we can see the deeper truths about how the powerful abuse their position and how that is presented to the public who have been betrayed.

Frost/Nixon opens the London Film Festival tonight and is released in the UK on Friday 9th January and in the US on December 5th   

> Official site for Frost/Nixon
> Frost/Nixon at the IMDb
> The Times with a piece by director Ron Howard about making the film and an interview with David Frost about his verdict
> Find out more about Richard Nixon at Wikipedia
> Read a transcript from the interviews at The Guardian