It’s interesting to go back and watch Frost/Nixon with a new perspective. When the film was made in 2008 the current US President was George W. Bush, a man who was at the time a contentious and divisive figure, but one that was seen as ‘not as bad’ as the titular Richard Nixon. Now, ten years later, in a time when the world has lived through two terms of Barack Obama and is a number of years into the presidency of Donald Trump it does alter how you think about Nixon.
Richard Nixon has been seen as a villainous president by many for decades, and the story of his downfall and corruption has been one that has fascinated, yet now, in a time where the US President splits up families and praises Nazi’s can we still look at Nixon and see him as a villain?
Frost/Nixon seemed to want to answer this question a decade ago, shining a light onto the world famous moments in which Nixon admitted live on air that he had engaged in illegal activities, yet chose to portray him as a very real and flawed man, something that many films that feature the historic figure have failed to do.
A large part of the success of the films portrayal comes from director Ron Howard’s decision to include the two leads from the stage production to be part of the film, having Michael Sheen play David Frost and Frank Langella reprise Nixon. You can tell that both actors are incredibly comfortable in the parts, having played them so long before even coming onto set, but it’s Langella as Nixon who shines the most.
Having studied the former president Langella captures the speech patterns without it becoming an over the top impression, and copies the physical mannerisms to the point where he is able to embody the man without the need of ridiculous prosthetic that exaggerate his features, as many films do. He doesn’t come to the production playing Richard Nixon, he plays a man, a real everyday person who happens to be in this situation, going through these events. This helps him to avoid the pitfalls of many other film Nixon’s, and even brings a lot of depth and sympathy to the role.
Come the end of the film you will find that preconceived notions about Nixon may have changed. He may no longer be the terrible figure that he’s been made out to be in the past, but simply a man who made poor choices and is trying desperately to hold onto the respectability that his former position should afford him. Sheen is excellent in his role as David Frost, though doesn’t stand out as much as Langella simply due to Frost being a much smaller personality. That’s no slight against David Frost, the man was an amazing interviewer, but simply a reflection on how Nixon towered over him during these events.
The film reflects that fact well, selling the audience on the idea that despite being a rising star David Frost was somewhat out of his depth at the beginning of the interviews with Nixon, having come across an opponent instead of a normal interviewee. Sheen plays this well, showing the highs and lows that Frost went through over the course of the process. He sells the audience on David Frost and his journey so well that when Nixon finally says the iconic line ‘when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal’ you’ll be cheering on Sheen for finally getting the win.
Whilst the two leads dominate the screen the film’s supporting cast is just as perfectly acted, with some truly brilliant character actors helping to keep the plot moving forward, including Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfayden, Toby Jones, and Sam Rockwell. It’s never an easy job to portray a real life figure, especially when the events are still firmly in many people’s memories and the subjects still alive, but every single cast member is perfectly on point throughout.
Ron Howard described Frost/Nixon as the ‘thinking man’s Rocky’, and it’s not far from the truth. Not a single punch is thrown between the two, but the constant back and forth during the interviews makes for some incredibly tense moments, and you’ll be willing one side to win. Frost/Nixon is a clash of titans, two men who feel that they are right locking horns and fighting to show the public their side.
If it were simply fiction it would be a fascinating and well made film, but because it’s real world history it becomes a much more important and intriguing piece.
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