In this corner, the president who resigned in disgrace, the man they call “Tricky Dick” for good reason, Richard M. Nixon. And in this corner, the lightweight, blow-dried disco-era “TV presenter,” Mr. “Hello, good evening and welcome,” David Frost.
Frost/Nixon — the hit play that is now a Ron Howard movie with five Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best actor for Frank Langella — is a “prize fight” recounting of the famous 1977 TV chats between the glib bon vivant Brit and the eye-gouging “enemies list” president. Howard's workmanlike and entertaining film has wit and history and some choice performances. But it's a fight without a knockout blow.
We begin with a quick overview of Watergate and the Nixon resignation and pardon, underscored by the real White House tapes — Nixon threatening IRS reprisals against the press. Langella doesn't so much resemble Nixon as suggest the inner “unconvicted co-conspirator,” small enough to spend his life getting back at a world that looked down on him.
Michael Sheen, terrific as Tony Blair in screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan's The Deal and The Queen, is brilliant as Frost, suggesting a vapid dandy with an eye for the main chance without turning the easily lampooned Frost (Monty Python had a go at him) into a caricature.
Frost sees the worldwide audience for Nixon's farewell address. He jumps ahead of the Mike Wallaces of America by knowing the way into Nixon's heart: He writes him a check. Nixon agrees to be interviewed because he needs the cash, and his agent, legendary wheeler-dealer “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones), promises him that the shallow Frost will deliver “a big wet kiss.”
As the ground rules are worked out (four interviews in all), the two men assemble their “corner” teams — for Frost, a Brit producer (Matthew McFadyen), a veteran American reporter (Oliver Platt) and a passionate Nixon-hating academic, James Reston (played with wild-eyed verve by Sam Rockwell).
Nixon has his trusty ex-military aide (Kevin Bacon) and a team that included a very young Diane Sawyer.
The play and the film weigh things rather heavily in Frost's favor, showing us Frost's financial gamble in the show, the shallow striver who had much in common with his adversary. Yet Langella's Nixon is the more fascinating character, and despite stretches when he seems to rush the lines as if he's played the role too long (Sheen and Langella co-starred in this in London and on Broadway), the onetime Dracula gets across Nixon's guile and his self-awareness. He knew he was a piece of work.
The play was a theatrical event, and the claustrophobia of the stage made the boxing metaphor more apt. But opening it up beyond the interviews and their prep work has the effect of pulling punches. Nixon lands his blows, Frost counters. And Ron Howard? He gets the decision, but it's just a decision on points.