‘The most important political interview ever.’. ‘A defining moment in American history.’ The hyperbole surrounding the content of the movie cannot be understated, seeing as it is the only interview, before or since, in which President Richard Nixon has talked candidly and openly about the Watergate Scandal, a debacle which saw five burglars, on Nixon’s command, break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Their subsequent arrest led to the uncovering of massive abuses of power, from wiretaps to bribery.
So, Ron Howard, what have you done with the challenge you face – encapsulating a moment in history the Republicans would rather have swept under the carpet?
Overall, and quite irritatingly for such a complex subject, you could boil it down to an underdog story. Frost gets the opportunity to interview Dick, and is told he’s way out of his depth (something which is shown to be true in the early interviews). His team resent him, he’s mocked by the opposition, until the inevitable rise against the odds when he knuckles down to eventually reign supreme. Essentially Dodgeball with suits. Or, to paraphrase Rich Hall…
“He’s an interviewer. Pretty good interviewer too. Then he has a crisis of confidence, until he meets a good looking woman who helps him become a better interviewer.”
However, that would be glossing over some very good work in and on the film. I was sceptical about the direction before hand, as I’ve never really been a Ron Howard fan. But he has done well here I’ll admit. In part, he is helped by a mesmeric performance by Frank Langella as Nixon. No doubt playing the same character on the stage prior to this has helped him portray every mistake, every bad dream, every regret the disgraced former President ever had, captured beautifully near the end as he sits silently in the closing interview. Another stellar performance for me was Kevin Bacon, shining as Nixon’s aide and Vietnam veteran Jack Brennan. He excelled in representing the hard nosed edge of the right, before struggling to come to terms with his employer’s back-alley dealings.
The structure of the film is also quite viewer friendly, but not in a way which detracts from Frost/Nixon wholesale. We begin with various news bulletins reporting on Watergate, and the film is interspersed with snippets from the characters, reflecting on their memories of the interviews (for example Zelnik and Reston, Frost’s two American researchers, talk about their initial contempt of Frost as a mere talk show host). Not only does this help the audience not get lost in the political aspects, it allows for some telling moments. One particular which stands out is Brennan at the end of the film, when he confesses he never watched the interviews when they went out on broadcast…the betrayal etched in his face was palpable.
Sadly, the disappointment in this film is, well, Frost himself. Despite the financial burden he incurs and the bravery he shows in trying to catch one of the biggest, most slippery fish in the pond bare-handed, for me he never lost the slimy edge which irked his researchers so much in the beginning. Both protagonists are portrayed as lonely, fame-seeking individuals who are petrified of being thrown to the wayside, yet when Frost throws himself a birthday party with Neil Diamond on singing duties, and has the gorgeous Rebecca Hall dripping over him, it is hard to have much sympathy. A shame, as I quite like Sheen usually.
Yet this shouldn’t detract too much from what is a rather good film on the whole. Formulaic, yes. Clunky in places, it is. But I could certainly think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon…I mean, Portsmouth are usually playing.