Frost/Nixon is a fascinating, timely and well-judged dip into political history. This is a film that raises questions about power, responsibility, decision-making, corruption and celebrity that an audience can place in context for any political circumstances they care to cast their minds to.
Set in 1977 and based around David Frost’s interviews with the disgraced former US President Richard Nixon, the film gathers many strands and stories up into its folds. For a majority of Americans, Nixon — though impeached and forced to resign after the Watergate scandal — had never apologised for betraying the trust they placed in his hands. Here was a nation waiting for the words, “I’m sorry”. Here was also an ex-President bitter at being hounded from office, bitter at the world for not understanding his motives — or for making more of his successes — and eager to use the opportunity he felt Frost was offering him for rehabilitation. Also, the Frost of ’77 was not the political interrogator he later forged a reputation as; here was a “performer”, a talk-show host, a political naïf ready to be gobbled up by a political heavyweight.
And so it played out, until the fourth of their scheduled interviews, when a beaten and embarrassed Frost provoked the reaction from Nixon that saw the interview receive the largest audience for a news programme in the history of American TV. Neither acid attack, liberal crusade or soft-soap affair, Frost/Nixon is simply a great story with superb protagonists. And while the supporting cast are all impressive, it is Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) who bear the weight of this piece. Sheen’s performance is beautifully judged. Starting with parody, allowing us to share that initial moment of recognition at his note-perfect impersonation, before moving into a powerful and mature portrayal that is about evolving a character, more than just playing a real person.
And yet it is Langella who steals the victory this time. His Nixon is all about slow burn; he’s a character revealed, as if from the shadows, as if from his own shadows and dark places, out into a light where we can better judge him. And, from the moment the word Watergate entered the vocabulary, everybody has been judging Richard Nixon.