Three years after the Watergate scandal forced him from office, disgraced President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) breaks his silence and agrees to sit for an in-depth interview with British media personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). Ever the cunning strategist, Nixon believes he can easily outfox Frost, whom he perceives as a vapid showbiz figure, and somehow win back the American people whilst pocketing a $600,000 fee. Likewise Frost’s producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) and researchers Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) have doubts about their boss’ ability to hold his own. But as the cameras roll, a gripping battle of wits ensues.
Adapting his critically acclaimed stage play, writer Peter Morgan presents the legendary Frost/Nixon encounter as less a post-mortem of the socio-political trauma wrought by Watergate and more an epochal moment in American television. For its first act at least, the film feels more like a behind-the-scenes showbiz biopic or at best, an anatomy of a landmark pop cultural event. In that spirit, Morgan arguably found an ideal collaborator in Ron Howard - a filmmaker who quite literally grew up on American television via his sitcom stardom on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. Howard may be hit-and-miss when dabbling in other genres, but has always been at his best as a chronicler of great moments in American media. He understands television, whether detailing Frost’s complex wrangling with network executives or deftly illustrating how one final close-up sealed Nixon’s fate - just as, the president ruefully admits, it cost him the debate with John F. Kennedy all those years ago.
With the focus initially on the dance of media negotiation, it’s down to James Reston to remind Frost, and viewers, that Nixon betrayed the trust placed in him by the American people and left the nation traumatised. Morgan transforms the interview into a prize fight between a heavyweight (people forget, Nixon excelled in the debating arena) and a rank outsider. Presidential aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) circles the ring rallying Nixon almost exactly like a boxing coach. Morgan employs a degree of dramatic licence here as the wily Nixon flummoxes Frost in the first two rounds (including the crucial question of the Vietnam war) before the underdog (having revived his spirit and trained all night in classic fashion) hits back with a killer punch. In reality, according to Frost’s girlfriend Caroline Cushing, played here by Rebecca Hall, the veteran broadcaster was not at all disheartened by the first two interviews. More troublingly, several commentators have accused the film of historical revisionism claiming Frost never really drew such a contrite confession from “Tricky Dick”. Some have gone so far as to claim the film attempts to turn a loss into a win, although even James Reston admits he initially failed to appreciate the significance of what Frost achieved. What plays one way in the room, plays a whole other way on a TV screen as Morgan, Howard and crucially David Frost understood only too well.
British viewers who have grown up watching the avuncular Frost may be surprised to see him portrayed as this flawed hero. The film tags Frost “a man without political convictions” and strangely downplays his solid journalistic credentials. Ironically, if indirectly, it upholds the British establishment’s initial impression of Frost when he first appeared on the scene in the early Sixties: facile, materialistic and vaguely self-aggrandising. At least the third act has Frost rebound as the verbal jouster we know him to be, at least at that point in his career. Since President Nixon’s death in 1994, revisionists have made a conspicuous effort to recast him as a victim of his own demons rather than the monster he was to a whole generation during the Sixties and Seventies. There is something vaguely troubling about this willingness to “teach those hippies they were wrong” and sweep Nixon’s transgressions under the trapdoor marked “he meant well”, but Frank Langella (in a career best performance) nails his persecution complex and draws humanity from his befuddled, final admission. Which is not to overlook Michael Sheen's superb turn as David Frost who while undoubtedly shrewd and charismatic comes across almost as big an enigma as his presidential quarry. As Nixon himself forlornly admits, each may have been ideally suited to the other's job.