It’s sometimes difficult to believe that journalism can be used for anything except pointing out the weight of semi-famous people or making us all panic about how much the public / environment / economy is in trouble and it’s all because of youths / the government / immigrants. But among all the shite, journalism (like this) can have a positive impact on the world, or make some sort of change. And so it can be seen when David Frost, flailing TV host watching his career trickle downhill after a flourish of success, unearthed an apology from Richard Nixon, a jowly president with unusual ideas about the law.
It’s an odd choice to make a film about a TV show that has already been aired, where the seminal moment of success has already been filmed and broadcast and relished. You can’t just replicate what’s already been on TV – why watch someone pretend to do an interview when you can watch the real thing? So Frost/Nixon, based on a play by Peter Morgan who also writes this screenplay, instead takes a look behind the scenes, charting the David/Goliath task ahead and attempting to get into each player’s mindset.
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella do superb jobs at embodying their counterparts, Sheen catching the determination and charm in the face of failure, and Langella mixing sparkling intelligence with crumbling defences. Of course, what the hell would I know – I wasn’t alive when these two went head-to-head. Still, it made for some great cinema, director Ron Howard choosing an almost documentary feel with the solid supporting cast (including the sturdy Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon) providing background interviews to set the scene, and in some cases explain what was going on. He also thankfully sidesteps the usual pitfall of stage-to-screen, injecting movement into the piece without losing the crackling dialogue.
You could almost hear Eye of the Tiger rumbling in the background as these two chaps came face to face, the ding-ding of the tape-change allowing their coaches time to pep-talk, and as with all sporting films there’s a training montage, then the baddie pummels the goodie, right up until the last minute epiphany that saves the day.
And yet… we all knew what was coming. Frost gets Nixon to admit everything on air – no spoiler there, it’s fact. And though Sheen does cut an impressive figure as the rogue Frost, how he makes a switch from slightly delusional talkshow host to suddenly getting one over the superiorly intelligent Nixon is barely dealt with, save a wedged in monologue from Nixon and a quick montage of people going to the library. Nixon himself, surely responsible for tremendous death and deception, is elevated to Boris status as a bumbling comic, cracking some of the more amusing lines of the film. Ha ha – he’s racist! And was in charge of America! Really funny.
So though it hooks you with some great performances and a premise that is fascinating and true, Frost/Nixon peters out when we reach the conclusion we already knew with no deep exploration into character, or flourishing finale to cap things off. It could almost be a BBC Saturday drama. One of those good ones, mind – the one-offs, or the three-parters. But a TV drama none-the-less, which is what it all started out as anyway. For its meaty drama Frost/Nixon gains an extra point, but for not really telling us anything we didn’t already know (even us yoofs who weren’t even alive then) it fails to go any higher than a CF1.