Review by Gordon Justesen
Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew
MacFadyen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
Director: Ron Howard
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2009
“And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got, because the limelight can only shine on one of us.”
If someone told me at the beginning of the year that Ron Howard would not only make a far more brilliant and effective political film than Oliver Stone but it would be also be his finest work to date, I would’ve directed them to the nearest insane asylum. While Stone’s W. had its moments (I’m still stunned that Josh Brolin didn’t garner on Oscar nod for his performance), the overall film just didn’t deliver as a whole, in addition to having a true case of bad timing. And any time Oliver Stone tackles politics, I expect a grand slam of a cinematic experience, which is exactly what I got with Howard’s Frost/Nixon, one of the very best films of 2008 which earned 5 very well deserved Oscar nominations.
Though I was entirely familiar with President Richard Nixon’s political demise via Watergate (who wasn’t?), I knew next to nothing about the interview he gave to British personality David Frost three years after leaving office. In fact, the first time I heard of it was when Robert Downey, Jr. made mention of it in Natural Born Killers. Even though the interview took place two years before I was born, I have no idea why such a monumental event in the history of both television and politics managed to slip under my radar.
As it turns out, never seeing an ounce of footage from the interview turned out to be a fantastic advantage with watching Howard’s film, which does a mesmerizing job of recreating the legendary three part interview. Howard also made the right decisions in allowing writer Peter Morgan adapt his own stage play and getting actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, who had both played the roles of Nixon and Frost together on stage, to appear in the film. As it turns out, Howard had to fight hard to get Langella in the movie since the studio wanted a bigger name in the role of Tricky Dick, but he prevailed in his determination to get the two original actors from the play.
The film opens with a perfectly executed montage of actual news footage as Nixon (Langella) announces his resignation from the Presidency. We also get a nice touch in the form of faux documentary like talking head segments involving several key figures in the story. In both the montage and the talking head bits, we are given just the right bit of information regarding Watergate and the impression Nixon’s resignation and eventual pardon from President Ford left on most of the American people.
It was hard for anyone to predict that David Frost (Sheen) would be the guy to conduct the first interview with Nixon since leaving office. Though he was a popular British personality as the host of a talk show (which aired in Australian) and occasional movie producer, he wasn’t what one would consider a heavyweight of TV journalism. His playboy lifestyle seems to overshadow his profession.
But it was Frost who came up with the idea of interviewing Nixon, once realizing that his farewell speech attracted no less than four million viewers. He saw it as the career booster of a lifetime, one that would establish him with a huge reputation in the States. It would come with a hefty fee and all the major networks refused to pay, but Frost himself was quick to pull out his own checkbook and personally pay Nixon for the interview.
Nixon saw another opportunity in the interview. He saw a chance to rebuild his reputation. Though questions regarding Watergate were expected, Nixon saw Frost as nothing more than a lightweight whom he could easily dance around.
In the time leading up to the interview, Frost assembles his own little team of researchers to assist him in gathering together all the right questions to ask. Along with his own producer, John Brit (Matthew MadFadyen), Frost brings in American TV news reporter Bob Zelnick and professor/researcher James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Both Zelnick and Reston are insistent that Frost puts Nixon in a corner and get a confession out of him.
The way in which Howard stages and recreates the interview segments is incredibly remarkable. The directing, combined with phenomenal exchange of words between Langella and Sheen, results in multiple moments when you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat. Who would’ve thought a film about an interview could deliver such a potent effect?
If it were up to me, I can tell you that Frank Langella would’ve certainly won the Best Actor Oscar for his galvanizing performance as Nixon. When I first saw the trailer, I didn’t know if his performance was going to work simply based on him not resembling Nixon very much. But much like Anthony Hopkins did, but done to a better degree here, Langella fully embodies the essence of Nixon right down to every mannerism.
His vocal interpretation, alone, is flat out phenomenal! And the scene that conveyed to me that Langella deserved the Oscar is a pivotal moment where a drunk Nixon makes a phone call to Frost’s hotel room the night before the final interview. He has a monologue which he delivers so intensely that I was left shaken by the final word.
Equally amazing is Michael Sheen in the role of Frost. He too embodies the persona of Frost so tremendously well, and when he collides with Nixon in the interview, Sheen grabs your attention in the same way Langella does. Having previously played Tony Blair in The Queen, it’s not crazy to think we may eventually see Sheen play every well-known British personality that hasn’t been brought to film yet. I’m already picturing him in a Prince Charles biopic.
Frost/Nixon is a masterful accomplishment in so many ways. It is Ron Howard’s greatest piece of filmmaking to date, so much so that I don’t think he can ever surpass it. It’s a riveting political film and period piece, not to mention a fantastic recreation of an important moment in the history of television journalism. And in terms of film adaptations of stage plays, this is one of the best ones to date!
Universal delivers yet another grand piece of Blu-ray brilliance with this release! Given the limited set pieces, which are usual for an adaptation of a play, I was floored by the amazing level of detail displayed in this presentation. The late 70s come to vivid life, as the costumes and sets appear in a most authentic form. And the added bit of lighting used in the interview segments really makes these important scenes appear even more effective. Dynamic looking from beginning to end!
It should surprise no one that this film is dialogue and not much else. However, the DTS HD mix does make every spoken word sound tremendously clear and potent, especially during the interview scenes. Nixon’s growl has never sounded more intimidating. The overall sound quality is so effective; it makes you feel like you’re right there in the room with Frost and Nixon.
This Blu-ray release from Universal offers some most splendid extras, starting with two ‘U-Control’ Picture-in-Picture viewing modes; the first one, which may be the single best Picture-in-Picture track I’ve seen to date, features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew members and runs throughout the film. The second one, titled “The Nixon Chronicles”, features actual documents and news footage from the actual televised interview. We also get a commentary with Ron Howard, 30 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, several featurettes including “The Making of Frost/Nixon”, “The Real Interview” and “The Nixon Library”.
Frost/Nixon is a true masterpiece. Everything in the film is nothing short of remarkable, from Ron Howard’s directing, the standout performances from Langella and Sheen, the terrific supporting cast and the amazing recreation of this legendary interview. Very high on my list of the best films of 2008!