Frost/Nixon – Review

Opie does it again

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Director: Ron Howard
Notable Cast:
Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones

Ron Howard has always been a director who never gets the sort of credit others would merit, sometimes, based on his early acting days. It’s hard to think that the man most famous as Richie Cunningham of Happy Days fame would be an Oscar winning director, but Howard has this odd habit of making great films on a regular basis. The latest: Frost/Nixon.

Based on the stage play of the same name, the film focuses on the momentous interview between David Frost (Michael Sheen) and former U.S President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Seemingly out of nowhere, as Nixon’s first big public interview was projected to go to someone more professional like Mike Wallace, Frost managed to land the interview (at great personal expense) and go beyond everyone’s wildest dreams in the final session about Watergate.

The film focuses on the buildup, as we see Frost trying to make a splash and Nixon look to find some sort of redemption after the disgrace that was his resignation (amidst the Watergate cover up). Hiring three veteran news people (Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen) to arm him with questions, the film is an interview meshed with a Rocky film as Howard builds up to the interview’s signature finale: Nixon’s confession to the American people.

Howard builds up the piece with remarkable skill, crafting Nixon as inhabiting a different atmosphere of interviewing skills than Frost is used to. Controlling the interview for the most part, Frost is left out gunned for the most part by the former President until the final round. In any Rocky film, Rocky Balboa always rebounds from 11 rounds of being punched in the face by pulling out the victory. Frost’s transformation from being the prey to the hunter is extraordinary, as he finally catches Nixon and gets the knockout. For Nixon it’s a chance at redemption, letting Watergate go from an otherwise solid record as President. For Frost it’s his shot back to the big time. For Howard, it’s a great thriller that builds from a great play. It doesn’t hurt that he has two men who originated the roles in Britain on the big screen.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are easily the best choices for the parts, considering they both were multiple award winners for the stage play, but both translate the characters from the stage to the screen. While neither physically resembles their real world counterparts, they inhabit the roles with a chemistry that is fantastic. Langella gets all the little things of Nixon correct, including his speech patterns, and seemingly walks in his skin throughout the film. Sheen does his best to keep up, going from a man overwhelmed with responsibility and trying to juggle many hats to setting up the kill shot in the final session. They work together wonderfully and their chemistry is something to behold; the interviews are gripping with tension throughout.

Howard mixes the tension rather well, leaving the buildup to the interviews rather even handedly. We’re given both sides preparing in a cat and mouse game of sorts; both sides know this is their shot at a given goal and prepare accordingly. There is no “gotcha” moment, just two men preparing for what would turn out to be career defining moments. Howard knows this and lets the film develop on its own as opposed to rushing it; by Nixon’s final cathartic moment we’re so emotionally invested in both of the main characters that it becomes the type of cinema rarely seen this year.

For David Frost it was a shot in the arm for his credibility, giving him the sort of prestige reserved for traditional journalists. For Nixon it was a chance for the nation to move past Watergate and get the confession of guilt so required for absolution of the issue. Nixon would always be synonymous with the event, obviously, but his other achievements would eventually come to give him a much better reputation and historical vantage point. For Ron Howard, it’s perhaps his best film to date and one of the finest in 2008.


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