More noise than signal


This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Perhaps the strangest thing, as far as I’m concerned at least, while watching play adaptation Frost / Nixon, is that I’m a lot more familiar with commonly seen TV host, gameshow presenter and breakfast TV lynchpin David Frost than I am with disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. Which, on the face of it, is somewhere between unusual and shameful. After all, there’s probably a lot more worth knowing about the Watergate scandals and gubernatorial back-stabbings than there is about that guy who used to present Through The Keyhole. Just as well this film is knocking about, then, is it not?

It’s also something of a gift for extraordinarily lazy plot recappers such as myself, as in a nutshell it’s very straightforward. Tiring somewhat of presenting light entertainment shows, David Frost (played here by Tony Blair) comes up with an idea that might increase his standing amongst his journalistic peers, but more importantly should draw high ratings and lots of dollar, dollar bills, yo. He’s going to interview the recently resigned Richard Nixon (played here by someone else).

For his part, Nixon has found himself reduced to the after-dinner talk show circuit, churning out the same tired anecdotes to rooms full of bored dentists and the like. He’s looking for a way to regain the initiative, rehabilitate his character and show off his statesmanship, and it seems a reasonable and lucrative launchpad for this would be a softball interview from a man not noted for his harsh interrogatives.

To Frost’s surprise, no-one seems too keen on the idea. He’s soon reduced to pumping his own money into the project, along with all he can beg steal or borrow to keep things going. Also, his research and preparation team consisting of John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell) are growing increasingly frustrated with the seeming levity which Frost is taking things, swanning off to parties with his bird while they slave over hot typewriters coming up with angles and research on the big ol’ crook.

I’ve not seen the interviews myself, as it goes, but I’ve no reason to doubt the version presented here that show an underprepared Frost completely out of his league for most of the interview, with Nixon looking to come out of this smelling of roses before an ill-advised, rambling, completely invented for dramatic reasons late night phone call encourages Frost to go for the throat, eventually extracting the one thing that he had refused to give the American people after his removal from office – the closest thing to an apology for his rampant abuses of power that he ever gave.

Obviously, there’s little scope for explosions and car chases in this sort of thing, but as both an exploration of the characters of both Nixon and Frost and as a somewhat documentary look at the events before, during and after the interview it’s gripping stuff. It is not, I should point out, a slave to reality, in as much as many of the scenes and dialogue are either moved in time and place or simply conjured out of thin area for dramatic effect. Not exactly a criticism, after all this isn’t marketed as a documentary but a drama, an it provides plenty of that.

Ron Howard’s direction is assured and, perhaps surprising, almost entirely free of the sentimentality that often clogs up his films, and as adaptations of stage plays go this is plainly up there with Glengarry Glen Ross as the absolute finest. Peter Morgan, he of The Queen, a dreary thing if ever there was one, reshapes his own work with skill and attention, and frankly I’d be pleased if both walked away with any awards they so desired.

Special mention, however, must go the the actors inhabiting the two internationally recognisable figures. It’s especially difficult to pull off dramatic roles that require impersonations without the whole thing descending into parody. Showing both accuracy and restraint, both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella give captivating, powerhouse performances that drive the film along with an, er, drive that simply demands your attention. Which is perhaps impolite, but undeniably effective.

The Oscar release schedules often see us plucky Brits suffer an embarrassment of riches in the early months of the year with the heavyweights lumbering forth. Frost / Nixon proves the point, giving us a second genuine contender for film of the year after The Wrestler. Happy days are here again.