When Richard Nixon sought to repair his reputation with television interviews in 1977, his aides selected an interviewer whom they were confident would be a pushover. David Frost, a British TV host with a taste for the good life, seemed a better fit questioning The Bee Gees than disgraced world leaders.
As the riveting "Frost/Nixon" makes clear, Nixon was smart and pugnacious, while his interrogator was widely dismissed as a lightweight. By all rights, it should not have been a fair fight, and yet both men arrived at an unexpected reckoning.
A movie based on TV interviews, even those as significant at the Frost-Nixon face-off, might not sound like cinematic alchemy. But director Ron Howard ("Cinderella Man") and screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), who adapts his own hit play, nimbly expand the narrative to fit the visual scope of the big screen. "Frost/Nixon" tells a story in which the ending is historical fact, but it is told with a surefootedness reserved for only the best journo-political thrillers.
Michael Sheen ("The Queen") and Frank Langella ("Starting Out in the Evening") reprise their Broadway roles as, respectively, the TV personality and the prez. Frost, who initiates the idea of taped interviews, hopes to revive his lagging career, especially among American audiences where he once enjoyed some success. Nixon wants to rehabilitate a reviled image. Still, Frost's desperation is palpable, and the deal is only finalized when he pays Nixon $600,000 "? much of it his own money "? for the exclusive four-part interviews.
Things don't go well for Frost, who faces skittish sponsors amid mounting criticism over his "checkbook journalism." Even Frost's own researchers "? historical and political writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell, "Snow Angels"), broadcast journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt, "Casanova") and TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen, "Pride & Prejudice") "? are skeptical that their boss is a match for Tricky Dick.
Such concerns are borne out in the first three interviews. Nixon, heeding the advice of a loyal aide (Kevin Bacon, "Death Sentence"), overwhelms Frost with long-winded answers and anecdotes. The battle comes down to the final interview, which is devoted to Watergate. Can Frost coax Nixon into a confession on the scandal that destroyed a presidency?
Even though viewers of a certain age will know the answer to that question, it is a testament to the filmmakers' artistry that "Frost/Nixon" crackles with suspense. Morgan's script is taut and witty, while Howard keeps things moving at a brisk clip.
The acting is superb. Langella captures Nixon's mannerisms "? the hunched shoulders, the awkward gait "? but the performance is interpretation, not imitation. Curiously, the actor imbues Nixon with a sympathy that eluded the real man. Sheen has the less showy role, but he is no less impressive.
The movie's Frost searches for truthfulness from Nixon, but "Frost/Nixon" should not be mistaken for truth. A key plot point concerns a phone conversation that points to the paranoia, self-loathing and insecurities that spurred Nixon's downfall. The sentiment is accurate, but the action is not. The phone call is an invention of the writer. Dramatic license is no crime, but it does smack of a revisionism that keeps "Frost/Nixon" from true greatness.