Sometimes it takes David to bring down Goliath. David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a likable talk-show host who mortgaged his future and career with an interview with former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Nixon, in need of money and a change in his public perception, agreed to the interview with the man whom his aide (Kevin Bacon) stated simply “isn’t in your league.”
After an intial montage summing up the Watergate scandal, the film follows Frost on his journey to land, finance, and prepare for the interviews which would almost break him, all while the rest of the world looked on and laughed.
Sheen (The Queen, Music Within) once again gives a great performance on which the film rests. Over the last two years he’s become one of my favorite actors working today.
Director Ron Howard‘s choice to give us Frost through his own eyes, as well as seen from his compatriots (Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen) and the Nixon camp, allows us to see the character as he was, and how the world viewed him.
Cut in throughout the film are remembrances of the characters years later. One of the best of these happens during Frost’s first interview on-camera with Nixon and involves an analogy about an eager young fighter who finds himself outclassed by a wily veteran. For most of the film Nixon plays with Frost as a cat does a mouse, controlling the interviews and using the situation to his advantage in an attempt to rebuild his reputation.
Ron Howard has a knack for taking stories about which we already know the outcome and still keeping us on our seats until the final scene. We know Apollo 13 landed safely, yet we become so caught-up in the story we begin to doubt the outcome, if only slightly. Much the same way the director infuses this tale with tension, increasing pressure, and gnawing doubt to the point, though we root for him, we’re still a bit unsure if this talk show host, this entertainer, is up to the task. As one of his confidants points out after that initial interview, the only solution when you’re so remarkably outmatched is to grow six inches. What makes the film work so well is we believe it’s possible for Frost to do so; we’re just not sure that he can.
I’ve mentioned Sheen’s performance, let me get to Langella. Nixon has been portrayed as everything from a villain to a buffoon in films over the years. Langella’s Nixon is presented as an incredibly smart, if flawed, individual with a large ego, and very much a man of his time. I was also taken with the dry humor with which he infuses the camera which knocks everyone, even sometimes his own entourage, off-guard.
The supporting cast is all top notch and imbue the film with some needed humor and a sense of perspective to the events as they unfold. Rebecca Hall is lovely in her small role as Caroline Cushing, and Rockwell and Platt are immensely enjoyable as “Crack 1” and “Deep Crack.” And yes, that’s how I’m going to refer to them from now on.
The film was adapted from the stage play (in which both Sheen and Langella starred). I haven’t seen it on stage, but if it works half as well as it does on screen I may have to check it out. From beginning to end I was engaged, entranced, and completely connected to the story which was unfolding in front of my eyes. The unlikely pair of an entertainer and a former President makes for some great storytelling (think Jimmy Kimmel attempting to illicit a confession of wrongdoing from Dick Chaney) and gives us more than simply a hero to root for or a villain to rail against.
Here is the struggle get to the truth and come to terms with the mistakes made during, at least until that time, the biggest scandal in Washington. I would recommend the film wholeheartedly to all fans of cinema as well as those wanting to relive an unusual event in the history of this country and one of the most unexpected events in the history of television.