Screenwriters: Peter Morgan
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon
Running Time: 122 mins
Travolta vs Cage in Face/Off. Optimus Prime vs Megatron in Transformers. A small group of Spartans vs a mighty army in 300. All of these are examples of epic cinematic clashes in recent times. Yet above these ranks the compelling battle between a flamboyant British television presenter and a disgraced former American President in Ron Howard's fascinating new film Frost/Nixon. Not one punch is thrown, but the verbal blows traded by the pair are brutal at times.
The superbly structured retelling of true events from 1976 is adapted by Peter Morgan from his acclaimed stage play and follows David Frost's attempts to finance and conduct an interview with Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The plot is a classic underdog story, as Frost and his research team are vastly underestimated by the media and Nixon's camp, who feel that Frost lacks the journalistic candour to coax Nixon into a confession and apology for his criminal conduct during his time in office. In a series of interviews, the men try to tactically outmanoeuvre each other, but there can only be one winner.
Ron Howard's understated direction plays a large part in ensuring an overwhelmingly successful transition from stage to screen. He never tries any flashy camerawork that might detract from the fine performances, and expertly builds the tension in the studio as he gradually takes us closer into the action and tightly frames the two sparring men in close-up and refuses to let go until either man buckles.
Undoubtedly though, the film belongs to Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, both recreating their roles from the stage version. Sheen absolutely nails the familiar vocal intonations and mannerisms of Frost, not shying away from the character's selfish and hedonistic side while also endearing him to the viewer and making us root for him.
As Nixon, Langella is phenomenal not just in terms of impersonating his commanding tones but giving him an intimidating, bullying presence. Yet we can see the haunted, tormented look in his eyes once the cracks start to show and Frost starts to gain an advantage despite Nixon's often funny attempts to throw him just before the cameras begin to roll. Indeed, such instances of humour provide welcome respite from the increasingly tense narrative, which reaches a crescendo during an illuminating and highly revealing drunken phone call by Nixon to his enemy.
The two lead stars are brilliantly supported by a dazzling array of characters. Kevin Bacon shines as Nixon's staunchly loyal aid, Matthew Macfayden portrays television producer John Birt as an amusing and deeply principled man, while Sam Rockwell provides a nice counterbalance to Frost's laid back nature as the vehemently anti-Nixon scholar brought onto the research team.
Many people probably know David Frost best for his presenting duties on Through the Keyhole, so here's an ideal chance to find out about the time the mild-mannered broadcaster took the world by storm. As this superb film shows, his conversations with Richard Nixon were far more illuminating than his recent banter with Lloyd Grossman.
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