The second great movie I saw this weekend (and the second-best movie I’ve seen so far this year) is Ron Howard’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play Frost/Nixon. Howard has a knack for dramatizing historic events — this is easily his best film since Apollo 13 and for my money rivals that great movie.
I suppose it would be hard to go wrong starting with such excellent source material, especially with playwright Peter Morgan on board to adapt his own work. But Howard has avoided any of the traps inherent in filming a piece intended for the stage and crafted a compelling work of cinema that works as both an underdog tale and an intimate tragedy.
His best move was to cast original stage actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. It’s hard to imagine any pair delivering finer performances in these tricky roles. As Nixon, Langella is astoundingly good, and in a just world will bring home an Oscar to pair up with his Tony. That’s not to shortchange Sheen, who is wonderful in the less showy but equally difficult role of David Frost. So much of his acting is done without speaking a word, as he reacts with a mixture of awe, respect, fear and disdain to the overbearing Nixon.
This film is sort of a history buff’s version of Rocky, with the outmatched underdog hoping to go 15 rounds with the heavyweight champ. During breaks in the interview, both Nixon and Frost confer with their “corner men” and talk about which weaknesses to exploit and how to stop the bleeding.
In those supporting roles, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen are all excellent. I was particularly impressed with Macfadyen, who I haven’t seen on screen since his great turn as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.
Though there are certainly parallels to the corruption of the Bush administration, Morgan and Howard don’t succumb to the temptation to make some grand political point. On the contrary, Nixon is depicted in a mostly sympathetic light — a proud and fiercely intelligent man with a tragic flaw.
The conceit of the film is that the series of interviews is a battle between Nixon’s side, which wants to use the opportunity to redeem his image, and Frost’s side, which wants to corner him into a confession of his crimes. The great irony is that it’s when Nixon finally breaks down and exposes his guilt that you feel for him the most.