Playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan has become his own sub-genre: ‘Peter Morgan’ projects are based-on-fact, footnote-to-history duologues involving famous, powerful, flawed individuals at dramatic junctures in their public lives, entering into (or ending) unlikely relationships which run the length of the narrative, trapped in webs of media interest, public criticism, backroom dealing and (often) crime. With Frost/Nixon, the pitch is even written into a title which is all that’s needed to set up the story, without even the explanatory notes necessary for The Deal (Blair/Brown), The Queen (Blair/Queen), The Last King of Scotland (Amin/Scots doctor), Henry VIII and The Other Boleyn Girl (Tudor/women) or Longford (Longford/ Hindley). Ron Howard, an A-list director who has been busily erasing any trace of personality from his work, is a safe pair of hands, without even the bite of a Stephen Frears (Howard’s best recent film is The Missing, but he’s more often signed midlist write-offs like The Grinch, The DaVinci Code and A Beautiful Mind – official successes, all worthless); and though this is an absorbing, impressive piece of speculative pop history with proper performances and moments of wit, it’s not as daring a film as, say, Altman’s Secret Honor or Stone’s Nixon or even the underrated Dick. Another director might have made more of the material – which would seem to fit into George Clooney’s oeuvre as a director or maybe suit the Milos Forman of The People vs Larry Flynt or the Tim Burton of Ed Wood – though it’s possible a more ambitious effort would have entail strings which would compromise the piece. Howard has the clout to retain the original stage cast, which Frank Langella at least must be grateful for since he now has a shot at all the gongs Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker scooped with previous Morganian pop-tragic monarchs.
To-camera interviews lend a documentary air, but they’re scripted and played by actors so you sometimes suspect this is a canny way of adding infodumps to a dense piece of work with a lot to cover. Richard Nixon (Langella) has resigned after Watergate and been given a retroactive pardon by Ford even before charges can be levelled, leaving a considerable community of Nixon-haters unfulfilled. Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) fences the President’s memoirs for big money and Nixon retreats to California, surrounded by tough, protective types like Marine Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), to brood by the side of the sea. Enter David Frost (Michael Sheen), talk show host on the slide, who signs Nixon for a four-part interview without even having a TV network set to screen it, and who sees the gig as a way back to the big time. Frost personally lands Nixon’s consent and lays out his own money to have the ex-President sign a contract, getting through because advisors like Brennan think he’ll be softer on Tricky Dick than an American newsman with a harder agenda. With anti-Nixon researchers James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and trusty producer John Birt (Matthew McFadyen) – yes, the same John Birt later generally hated as BBC D-G – Frost throws together the interviews, which are staged like the rounds of a fight. It’s accepted that Nixon shows why they called him Tricky Dick with his apparently off-the-cuff disorienting tactics on the first interviews, suggesting Frost’s Italian shoes are effeminate or asking if he did any fornicating last night as the floor-manager counts down to start, but the fourth show – devoted to Watergate – finds him on the ropes, letting slip his belief that whatever the President does de facto can’t be illegal and coming as close as possible to saying sorry.
Morgan’s strength is that he can suggest multiple possible motivations for the on-the-record actions of public figures, making even stories the audience knows seem dramatic, mysterious and involving – here, he adds a late-night, perhaps drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost before the final interview, which comes as a blast of paranoid fellow-feeling out of Secret Honor as Nixon rails against ‘the snobs’ who gave him a hard time and who he suspects did the same at Cambridge for the modestly-born Frost. Morgan and Langella are a match in the trickiness of writing and playing, even when simply following the real-life script, suggesting Nixon has genuinely revealed himself on camera but also leaving open the possibility that he has thrown in some of what a hostile public wants to hear simply because he doesn’t want the show to be a commercial failure either out of concern for Frost or a need not to be associated with another flop. Langella looks no more Nixonian than Anthony Hopkins, but rumbles his way to a real performance: he shambles and sweats a little, and offers a few of the remembered gestures, but doesn’t simply ‘do’ Nixon – a clever little bit points this out by having Zelnick sit in for the Prezz in rehearsal so Platt can deliver a funny, to-the-point, state-of-the-art-for-1977 Nixon impersonation which contrasts with Langella’s much subtler work. Rebecca Hall gets a token role as Frost’s girlfriend, who jabs him a little by quoting the suggestion that he’s risen to prominence without any discernible talent – it’s a case where casting a supernaturally beguiling, watchable actress in a thin role is necessary, simply to add a token extra viewpoint and to draw out the easy-to-underrate Sheen’s depths of nervy determination. As with his Tony Blair, Sheen’s Frost begins as an impersonation – though Frost is ticked off when a fan at an airport parrots his supposed catch-phrase and mutters ‘I don’t actually say that’ – and turns into a nuanced, pained performance. Patty McCormick – the evil little girl from The Bad Seed – registers briefly as Pat Nixon, and Howard as usual hands out decent little bits to his father Rance and brother Clint.