What a terrific movie premise: cheesy Brit TV star David Frost tries to resuscitate his international career with a big-hitting interview with disgraced but pardoned – and to date unapologetic – President Nixon. A scarred America watches with bated breath for the retribution they seek, nay, need. But will wily ol’ Nixon escape again?
Of course, the reality may have been a tad less dramatic: Frost’s career was no more ‘on the rails’ than anyone else who endures the vagaries of television. Nor was he merely a Bee Gees-interviewing plod. A Cambridge graduate who’d been at the forefront of anti-establishment satire with That Was The Week That Was, he already had a track record of interviewing political figures and practically introduced the idea of ‘trial by television’ with his on-screen demolition of insurance fraudster Emil Savundra.
And the reclusive Nixon? He just wanted a big cheque to talk, one the American TV networks weren’t willing to pay to a disgraced leader.
Peter Morgan’s screenplay (adapted from his own play), nods at such truths, but also scurries over them quickly enough to maintain the propulsive David and Goliath structure he’s engineered.
Thus, Sheen’s Frost is slick but somewhat one-dimensional: Rocky to Nixon’s Apollo Creed. (And with the actor given so little meat, you do occasionally feel you’re watching his Tony Blair turn in The Queen).
Langella maintains his stage take on Nixon: a wounded lion with a destructive streak fueled by self-loathing.
It’s a compelling performance if maybe historically questionable. But the film’s rapid pace leaves little time for contemplation; what you actually get is the brisk, engaging fun of a sports movie: the fighters warm up, train with their seconds and then get down and dirty.
Howard smartly and assuredly opens up the stage play into genuine cinema with astute location work and a tidy eye for framing interiors. The period dressing, from first class air travel to five star hotels, is astute but never allowed to distract. And the supporting cast are all pitch perfect (Bacon’s stoicism and Hall’s vivacity particularly enjoyable).
But ultimately, for all the talents on display, this remains Hollywood ham.