Furthermore, upon researching the interviews, I read that David Frost's experience was different to what's seen in the film. According to his partner Caroline Cushing, he didn't fret endlessly over his performances with Nixon, he was quite content with each of the interviews.
So, like many films 'inspired by true events', the film takes liberties with the facts. However this doesn't matter to the viewer, the artistic licence makes for a great piece of dramatisation. The film is quite a gruelling experience; the pressure in and out of the interviews is intense. For a film that concerns conversations, it is quite remarkable how compelling and uncomfortable it is. The wars of words and mind games are more engrossing than any boxing match in 'Raging Bull' or 'The Fighter'.
The film's chief merit lies in its performances. Martin Sheen sounds and even looks exactly like David Frost, it is quite uncanny. And whilst not meeting the likeliness achieved by Sheen, Frank Langella is equally as captivating as Nixon. Also, Kevin Bacon gives a good, typical Kevin Bacon performance as Jack Brennan, the officious aide to the President.
Frost/Nixon is a taut, entertaining dramatisation with strong performances and an accomplished period aura.
"When the president does it, that means it's not illegal" -- Richard Nixon
In a rare move, both of the original play's leads reprise their roles for this Ron Howard-directed film version. Frank Langella once again portrays Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen again takes on David Frost. Langella (who you may remember as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe... no? Ok, maybe that's just me. And Clint.) won a Tony Award in 2007 for the stage version, and does an outstanding job here, virtually guaranteeing himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He is absolutely mesmerizing on screen. The rest of the cast shines just as brightly (Ron Howard, I believe deserves a lot of credit for not being overly directorial and letting his actors flourish). Michael Sheen has the difficult task of keeping Frost sympathetic while he consistently underestimates the demands of the assignment he has given himself; however, the most entertaining beats, arguably, involve Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt. Rockwell in particular excels as anti-Nixon historian James Reston Jr., who desperately wants to use this interview to "give Nixon the trial he never got." Oliver Platt is less over dramatic as ABC News honcho Bill Zelnick, but it's always a joy to watch him play subtly sarcastic, intelligent men of authority.
The one major critique of the film I've heard is that the screenplay's arches have been manipulated and heightened to give the film more of a dramatic feel, and that the original Frost/Nixon interviews are nowhere near as entertaining (except when the topic turned to Watergate, of course). While that may be true, the elevated drama in this film is absolutely riveting and supremely effective, thereby making it nearly impossible to stand by that criticism. What we have is a Rocky-style boxing match: meticulous research and training, all in the hopes of destroying the opposition. I saw this film with some friends of mine, and at one point, I looked over and each one of them were sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes glued to the screen, absolutely riveted by what was transpiring. Best of all, this film was able to accomplish that without explosions and chase scenes. That, my friends, is the mark of an excellent film.
I really liked how the film was almost shot as a documentary. It portrayed Nixon as a sympathetic character, which was fine by me. Rebecca Hall's character unfortunately felt wasted and unnecessary, and the confrontatial scenes often lacked the spark I was hoping to see, but I still felt that Frost/Nixon had merit. I just wish more of it had the fervent intensity of the phone call between Frost and Nixon that took place a few nights before their final interview.
Howard does a nice job directing, using fake interviews with the surrounding charactors to set up the action to follow.
Interesting little tidbits abound, from the inclusion of Dianne Sawyer as part of Nixon's interview team to a hilarious bit where Oliver Platt immitates Nixon saying that JFK would hump anything, even Checkers - that poor dog was never the same....
All of Nixon's brashness and money hunger is on display, and yet for all his megalomania you can almost feel sorry for him - for he was indeed brilliant and did accomplish an aweful lot on not only the global stage, but in curbing that first recession (remember the wage/price freeze he instituted - and this was when he had no control over either branch of Congress). He inherited Viet Nam and while bombing Cambodia was perhaps ill advised (as the film points out) - at that point he was still trying to achieve victory. It took guts for him to finally pull us out, something that Obama promissed to do and has yet to be able to accomplish.
Thankfully, Frost/Nixon falls into neither of these traps. Ron Howard's direction is understated and unfussy; he shoots every scene, from the most trivial entrance to the gripping final interview with a silent sensibility, never feeling he has to prompt the actors to work harder in creating the mood, or deciding to help them with unnecessary camera angles. Despite the fact that the film's subject is a series of television interviews, the film never risks becoming 'televisual'. The camera is an observer to the process of making TV, without becoming TV itself.
Of the central performances, the most remarkable is Frank Langella as Nixon. While wisely choosing not to do a completely accurate pastiche, he embodies most of the Nixon mannerisms we know and love (or not). Thus he completely dissolves into the character, and we are able to go with him because we are not conscious that he is acting, or if we are, then we are not sufficiently irritated by his gestures that we get distracted.
Michael Sheen eventually becomes a match for him, although for the first few minutes there are more signs of parody than accurate performance, and occasionally he smiles in the way that his Kenneth Williams did in Fantabulosa!, causing audiences to raise an eyebrow. However once the largely expository first 20 minutes is over, we beginning to realise what makes his Frost tick, how he manages to be both ambitious and misguided, and eventually we find ourselves taking his side in the final interview. He never inhabits Frost in the same way as Langella does -- perhaps a reflection of his growing fame rather than a dearth of ability -- but the final interview sequence is particularly brilliant on his part.
In supporting roles, there are also many good turns on both sides. Kevin Bacon chews up the screen as the sinister, Milgram-esque Paul Brennan, Nixon's Chief-of-Staff, in what is probably his best performance since Apollo 13 (also directed by Howard). Rebecca Hall acquits herself very well as Frost's love interest, even if she is easily mistaken for Imogen Heap until the credits come up. And Sam Rockwell gives a great performance as Frost's fiery researcher, another example of complete immersion in the role. It's certainly hard to believe that only nine years earlier he played the retarded murderer Wild Bill in The Green Mile.
There are, however, a few problems with this film. Both the first 20 minutes and the ending are a little loose. The opening sequence is confusing, intercutting between Nixon as played by Langella and television clips surrounding the Watergate Scandal. Howard is clearly trying to place the events of his resignation in context for those unfamiliar with history, but to do this in this way confuses the audience. If you're going to have Nixon, Frost et al. played by actors, why not have the likes of Gerald Ford and others like him played by actors too? It would have been relatively easy to identify them, even through the use of strap-lines on the TV clips. The ending too, with the exchange surrounding the phone call, is also poorly executed. The phone call as a plot device works -- even if it didn't occur in real life, it helps explain Frost's transformation in the final interview -- but the final conversation between Frost and Nixon feels staged and fake as they struggle to tie up that loose end.
Comparisons were always going to be made between this film and Oliver Stone's Nixon, which ends where this film begins. But where Stone clearly has an axe to grind, squandering the best that Anthony Hopkins can offer in the pursuit of a point-scoring caricature, Howard's film creates a compelling portrait of Nixon which is neither overly sympathetic nor unnecessarily damning. It is definitely Howard's best film since A Beautiful Mind, and shares with that a sense of understatement in the face of grandeur that the likes of Stone and Michael Moore just don't understand. This is a highly compelling film, by no means a masterpiece or a completely accurate history lesson, but a powerful showcase of acting talent and political drama at its best.