Frost/Nixon is a properly terrific, dramatised account of the television interview between David Frost and disgraced former American President Richard Nixon which, broadcast in the summer of 1977, achieved the largest audience ever for a news programme in the history of American TV with 45 million viewers. As I don’t remember much about it — I was 16 at the time and therefore much too busy shoplifting in Chelsea Girl (or Snob or Biba; I wasn’t that fussed) — I can’t comment on the historical accuracy, but can say it feels powerfully authentic and, even if it isn’t, who cares? It’s a tight and absorbing trip to the cinema, end of.
Directed by Ron Howard — who’d have thought it? Richie Cunningham from Happy Days! — and adapted by playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland; not Happy Days) from his hit stage play, it follows all the shenanigans that ultimately led to the epic interview which, in and of itself, was filmed over 12 days, finally amounting to 28 hours and 45 minutes of footage. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? Let’s go! But here’s the thing: it actually is. I mean, it’s not thrilling thrilling, like Jaws the first time round, but it is thrilling to see something like this pulled off, and thrilling to see Frank Langella playing the dethroned Nixon with such festering splendour. It may even be that Frost/Nixon is about as thrilling as these things can get when sharks are not involved.
The film opens with the 1974 news footage of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, then cuts to a couple of years later and Frost (Michael Sheen) who, after having his talk show cancelled in America, is now hosting it in Australia. He isn’t thrilled about this. He liked being big in New York. People couldn’t get a table at Sardi’s for love nor money but him? ‘It was my canteen,’ he laments at one point. His career is on the wane. He needs a plan. But when he first moots the idea of interviewing Nixon to John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), then Frost’s producer, Birt thinks it’s hilarious. ‘But you’re a talk show host,’ he laughs. ‘I saw you interviewing the Bee Gees yesterday.’ Frost wants to show he’s not just a lightweight shmuck — don’t we all, my dear, don’t we all — in the hope that, one day, he might even be considered smart enough to host Through the Keyhole. (Just saying…)
And Nixon. What’s in it for Nixon? Well, the fee for a start — these were the glory days of cheque-book journalism, after all — but, more than that, he sees the interview as a means of rehabilitating himself and moving back into the corridors of power. It’s hard for a dethroned übermensch to know what to do with his time. He’s not mad about golf. No one ever imagines that Nixon, who has a formidable intellect, will be outwitted by Frost, who does not. As Colonel Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), Nixon’s touchingly loyal chief of staff, tells Nixon, ‘Frost is just not in your class, Sir. We are going to be able to rebuild your reputation. This entire project is a joke.’ He does not add, ‘And the house, Sir, is Suzanne Dando’s.’ Frost and Nixon may come from different places — Frost is shallow but socially adept and liked; Nixon is a thinker but hated — but have the same desires. One night, as the interviews are underway, Nixon phones Frost and tells him they both fear being looked down on, both fear they’ll never be great again, are both ‘looking for a way back to the sun, the winning podium’. I’ve no idea if this phone call actually happened or not. Did it? No excuses really, but in my defence I would like to say that 1977 may have been my busiest shoplifting year.
This is an exceptionally pacey film, which is good, if not extraordinary when you consider it boils down to two men talking, and it’s even suspenseful, which is also extraordinary, considering we know the dénouement. But it’s Langella’s blisteringly close-up performance as a man finally forced to concede the truth — to himself as much as to the American people — that gives the film its commanding strength. Sheen? Sheen sometimes adopts the Frostonian nasal voice and sometimes doesn’t, which is a bit weird, and his teeth are the most astonishing, neon white. Did Frost have astonishing, neon white teeth in 1977? Did any Brit? The Seventies were hardly the glory years for cheque-book dentistry, after all. All that said, though, he does do this most wonderful rictus of a smile when Frost, put on the spot, attempts to search for the depths he doesn’t have. By the way, Frost’s girlfriend of the time, Caroline Cushing, is played by a nice, smiley Rebecca Hall, whom I mention because, according to the press notes, she is ‘one of the world’s most intriguing young talents’. Really? I had no idea. How come I’m always the last to be intrigued?
Anyway, this is a splendid film that’s genuinely fascinating and gripping, and you don’t get many of those for the pound these days. So go see it. Some people are saying that none of this stuff matters anymore, and no one cares about it anymore, but that’s really not the point. Go see it, go see it, go see it, go see it. It’s the best thrill to be had without sharks. (On the other hand, if you think sharks essential, I would not recommend it.)