Peter Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon" premiered in London in 2006 and in what seems like a miraculously short turnaround, "Frost/Nixon" (opening December 12 in select theaters) now arrives on the big screen. The film version also turns to the original stage actors Michael Sheen and Frank Langella (who won the Tony for his performance) to reprise their roles as the British talk show host and former president. Morgan based his play and the screenplay on the series of televised interviews that former President Richard Nixon granted David Frost in 1977. The interviews famously ended with a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal.
"Frost/Nixon" marks the third collaboration between Morgan and actor Sheen, and the third project based on real events. Prior to Frost/Nixon, the two teamed for "The Queen" and "The Deal," both of which featured Sheen as Tony Blair. While we often see actors and directors pair up, it is less common to see actors and writers consistently work together. But this partnership has paid off and has helped make the transition of "Frost/Nixon" to the screen a successful one.
I know I am probably in the minority here but I am not a fan of Ron Howard's and I was concerned when he-rather than others such as Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese-was finally announced as the director to translate the play to film. But since this film is so driven by Morgan's script and the actors' performances, I decided he couldn't possibly ruin it. And I was right. Although he doesn't really bring anything to it either, no inspired sense of how it should look as a film rather than a stage play.
But what drives the film is the interplay between Sheen and Langella. Langella doesn't really look like Nixon nor does his voice really sound like Nixon's famously parodied one. And that was probably less of a distraction on the stage than in the big screen close-ups. Yet Langella is such a powerful actor that we eventually come to appreciate that he is delivering a performance rather than a mere impersonation. Sheen makes his efforts to look and sound like Frost up front in the opening scene and then settles into something more his own making than an imitation of the TV personality. But the joy of the film is the sparring between the two actors and the two characters. It's a constant game and competition, and Morgan's script provides the actors with plenty of lines to sink their teeth into. Sheen's Frost comes across as a fast-rising media savvy personality who sees an opportunity and grabs for it. Then he finds out that he's in way over his head. Langella's Nixon, on the other hand, is a seasoned and battle scarred veteran who hopes this is an opportunity to return to glory or at the very least repair some of the damage done to his reputation. The two characters are moving in opposite trajectories and my only complaint might be that Langella makes Nixon too sympathetic. The supporting cast is also top-notch with Matthew Macfayden, Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt rounding out Frost's team.
The film, as with the play, focuses on how Frost, then on Australian TV, got Nixon to agree to a series of interviews including one that would address the Watergate scandal. This "no holds barred" interviews were conducted in Los Angeles and did have some ground rules -- only 25% of the questions, for example, were to be on Watergate - and they ultimately gave Frost's career a huge boost. But when a friend of mine tried to track down the original interviews to see how closely the script stuck to what was really said, he could no longer find the complete interviews anywhere, just clips from the more dramatic Watergate section of the interview. So maybe Frost did flounder as badly as the film makes out and that's why those early interviews are not to be found. I imagine interest in them will now be peaked and maybe they will surface again.
Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code," "Apollo 13") essentially just stays out of the way of his actors. He tries to open up the play but tends to choose close ups as the means of emphasizing all the important emotions of the characters.
"Frost/Nixon" (rated R for some language) is a sharply written film with astute performances all around. It doesn't reveal anything new about the events of Watergate or about Nixon and Frost but it focuses in with great precision on this encounter between two men and the role the media played in both their lives.
Companion viewing: "The Queen," "All the President's Men," "Good Night and Good Luck," "Starting Out in the Evening"