The reductive power of the close-up is explored for all it’s worth in this highly entertaining recreation of the famous David Frost interviews with disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Indeed, was it Frost’s withering and relentless questions that finally undid Nixon, or was it simply the unflinching gaze of the camera, revealing to the world, as researcher James Reston Jr (Sam Rockwell) puts it, “…Nixon’s face, swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.”
Based on Peter Morgan’s hugely successful Broadway and West End play, adapted by Morgan himself, and starring the two leads from the stage show, the film uses the close-up to free itself from the stagey setting and material. Director Ron Howard, reliable as ever, does excellent work behind the camera. He employs real news footage from the Watergate Hearings, and employs a docu-drama device, whereby the main players (minus Frost and Nixon) speak directly to camera. It is an effective televisual technique that marries well with the film’s themes.
As David Frost, we are treated to yet another chameleon like performance from Michael Sheen, nailing the voice and mannerisms of Frost, just as he had done with Tony Blair (The Deal, The Queen), and would later do with Brian Clough (The Damned United). Driven by his desire to once more achieve success in America, Frost gambles everything to make this interview happen. With no network willing to take a punt on a washed-up talk show host, his entire career and personal fortune are on the line, as he signs cheque after cheque to pull this ambitious project together. The implication is clear: if this goes south, he is ruined.
Cut to camera two, and we find Frank Langella, a man who looks nothing like Nixon. There are no distracting prosthetics or wigs, or even a particularly close impression of Nixon’s famous low voice. But over the course of the film, this extraordinary and magnetic performance draws you in – ultimately evoking the 38th President rather than mimicking him – and leaves you thinking you’ve been watching the man himself. Driven by an insatiable greed for power, money and status, coupled with a contempt for the ruling class, Langella’s Nixon walks a fine line: not too sympathetic for those who still see him as the most hated man in American political history. Yet not so disgusting and venal as to be one-dimensional.
The setup is staged beautifully, but it is in the recreation of the interviews that this film really begins to shine. Howard stages them like a boxing match, with Frost and Nixon as the two pugilists. The plucky underdog and the wily experienced champ. The pep talks between the rounds from the coaches and cutmen in each corner – Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Matthew MacFadyen, Rebecca Hall and Toby Jones all doing fantastic work in supporting roles.
Nixon repeatedly states “no holds barred” in his patronising off camera exchanges with Frost, and in the opening exchanges on camera, he pulverises his opponent. He is the champ, and this talk show host from Britain should not be in the same ring as him.
What happens next is of course immortalised in the halls of television and political history. There’s no need to retread it here, other than to say it is played beautifully and delivers the impact it deserves.
The biggest issue with watching this film now is contemporary context. In 2016, compared to certain other controversial political figures currently dominating the news, Richard Milhous Nixon looks like…well…the kind of guy you’d vote for.
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Rebecca Hall, Matthew MacFadyen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt Director: Ron Howard Writer: Peter Morgan Released By: Fabulous Films Certificate: 15 Duration: 122 mins Release Date: 14th March 2016