There are a lot of way to disguise and subvert a sports movie and still make what is, in essence, a sports movie. Last year I raved about the documentary “The King of Kong,” about guys playing ancient arcade games, because, at its heart, it was a movie about a plucky underdog and a sinister champ. This year, director Ron Howard shows us that the same formula that worked for “Rocky,” “Hoosiers,” and guys playing video games also works in the political arena. “Frost/Nixon” is a fascinating, enthralling movie about a turbulent time in our country’s history, but at its heart, it’s a sports movie, about a plucky underdog and a sinister champ — until the end, when it becomes a little bit more. In short, it’s good cinema.
Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the plucky underdog. He is a lightweight talk show host who didn’t get into television to do shows about escape artists and contortionists, but finds that that’s what he’s good at, so that’s what he’s doing. He’s hungry for a shot at the “big time,” and sees an opening in the resignation of Richard Nixon. Someone’s got to get an interview with the guy, and he’s more likely to accept the offer of a lightweight talk show host type than a more serious journalist.
Nixon, for his part, is looking for a way to rehabilitate his image and get back into the Washington scene, in some capacity. Frank Langella plays Nixon as a shrewd and slyly funny enigma – off the air, he says things like “I would never want to be a Russian leader…they never know when they’re being taped” and then looks at you to see if you get the joke. He’s also brilliant, almost sociopathic in his ability to play games with people. On the air, he’s a master at controlling the time and doing what he wants with it. Frost is clearly out of his league.
Sheen and Langella are both actors of the first caliber, and they bring “Frost/Nixon” straight from Broadway. Their performances have the kind of comfort and lived in ease that comes from theater acting – playing the same character night after night, being that person for more hours of your day than you have to be yourself. They avoid caricature and imitation, and instead give us characters, in the very best sense of the word.
And they have a great cast around them. You get the feeling actors were laying down in the road for a chance to be in this movie. Kevin Bacon is Nixon’s chief aide and advisor, Toby Jones the bloodthirsty New York agent, Sam Rockwell the enraged hippie journalist– none of these actors are slouches, or bankable stars for that matter. Rockwell, in particular, has a memorable scene of barely controlled fury that just jumps off the screen. Somebody give that casting director an award.
In the third act, “Frost/Nixon” really turns up the heat, dialing in on the soul of Richard Nixon. And this is what we really want to know: is he sorry? Does he realize what he’s done? Does he care? Just when he’s got David Frost on the ropes, another Nixon emerges, a late night Nixon, a haunted man who is growing increasingly weary with the excuses and the stonewalling and just wants to get some stuff off his chest. The film becomes a battle between the two Nixons – the brilliant politician and strategist, and the man with a soul and a conscience. It’s true that Frost, on the final day, rises to the challenge, but he does so because Nixon has encouraged him, fed him, and, in a way, asked him to do so.
After watching “Frost/Nixon,” I checked out the actual footage of the Frost/Nixon interviews, and well, let’s just way that the movie is better cinema than history. Watching them shows how well-crafted the movie is: while it is enthralling, absorbing, even riveting, the real interviews are snore-inducing. And while “Frost/Nixon” does, in the end, manage to rehabilitate Nixon’s image somewhat – he comes across, finally, as a lonely man deeply haunted by his mistakes – the real Nixon never seems sorry for anything but getting caught. Maybe “Frost/Nixon” resonates so deeply because it gives us, 30 years later and after Nixon’s death, the act of contrition from our President that we’ve always needed. Too bad it’s fiction.
- if you like sports movies, and subverted sports movies
- if you saw the play (you lucky dog.)
- if you’re fascinated with our nation’s history, as I am.
- if you never thought Nixon got a fair deal.
- if you’re really obsessive about our nation’s history, and inaccuracies in movies drive you nuts.
- if you’re looking for eye candy, popcorn movie viewing.