Tension, discomfort fill a riveting 'Frost/Nixon'
A brief, understated scene in Frost/Nixon perfectly captures the subtle poignance in an absorbing film replete with telling moments and powerful performances.
It's 1977, and disgraced former president Richard Nixon, played mesmerizingly by Frank Langella, has lost his public swagger. He emerges from the final bout in a series of interviews with British talk-show host David Frost looking beaten down and bewildered.
A crowd gathers as he heads for his limousine. Nixon walks up to a woman holding a dachshund and pets the dog, tapping it gingerly, then tugging clumsily on its ear. With this wordless gesture, he conveys a palpable sense of defeat and social awkwardness.
One can't help but be moved, even after having just watched him admit that he let the country down with the Watergate debacle. "I'm going to have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life," he tells Frost (a remarkable Michael Sheen). You can almost see the weight of that burden on his sagging shoulders.
Langella and Sheen originated these roles in the play by Peter Morgan (who also wrote the screenplay) and translate them to the screen with awe-inspiring deftness. Langella's bravura performance comprises equal parts nuance, bluster and presidential stature. Sheen adroitly plays the dapper journalistic lightweight who gains determination and intellectual gravitas. The story works ideally on screen thanks to Ron Howard's nimble direction.
Frost/Nixon is not a conventional biopic, but it effectively evokes the sociocultural milieu of the time and presents a probing character study. It is most like a thriller as Frost's career hinges on getting the interviews and eliciting Nixon's on-air apology.
Howard establishes a mounting sense of tension, interspersing interviews with talking-head-style analyses from each camp. Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Kevin Bacon are excellent in these roles.
Morgan seamlessly blends actual interview dialogue and imagined conversations.
The film convincingly conveys how uncomfortable the 37th president was in his own skin.
Nixon asks Frost if he likes going to parties. Nixon remarks wistfully: "You have no idea how fortunate that makes you: liking people and being liked, having that facility, that lightness, that charm. I don't have it. I never did. It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinges on being liked."
It's hard to imagine how a film built around one-on-one interviews could be entertaining, but Frost/Nixon could not be more enthralling.