At this time of year, critics spend a lot of time watching dramas battling to prove that they have enough gravitas to deserve year-end awards. They tell stories of great people and/or great historical moments; they journey to far-off lands; they explore weighty themes, but not in a way that’s likely to make anyone uncomfortable. In the parlance of the industry, they are called “Oscar bait,” and you only have to look at the number of nominees released after Oct. 1 of any given year to realize that this bait hooks plenty of fish.
Frost/Nixon appears to have been constructed almost as a Frankenstein experiment in Oscar-baiting. It comes with an awards-pedigreed director (Ron Howard), an awards-pedigreed screenwriter (The Queen’s Peter Morgan), and the lead actors re-creating their performances from an acclaimed stage play. Its entire bearing suggests something of significance—except that there’s really not much significance to be found. All it does is tell a story, and entertain the hell out of you while doing so.
As he did with The Queen, Morgan looks for his drama in the clash between two real-life characters over how their legacy would be defined. In 1976, British-born TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) comes up with an audacious idea for an interview subject: disgraced ex-American president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Astonishingly, Nixon agrees to the interviews; he sees Frost as a lightweight who will allow him to polish up his public image without pushing him too hard on the Watergate cover-up. Meanwhile, Frost’s research team sees this as perhaps the only opportunity to give the American public the “conviction” of Nixon that it needs in order to heal—even if Frost himself has to spend most of his time simply trying to raise the money to get the thing on the air.
It’s possible—if you squint and tilt your head to one side—to find echoes of contemporary events in Frost/Nixon. The ex-president’s justifications about expanding the Vietnam War to Cambodia carry more than a hint of comments by the current administration; ditto for notions about a fairly imperial presidency. We often need histories like this to tell us something about our own time, and Frost/Nixon delivers at least a little of that.
But really, it’s not about the resonance—or so little of it that it seems like a waste of energy. Boxing metaphors aplenty spill forth in Frost/Nixon, and on the most fundamental level, the film is a showcase for two characters—and the actors playing those characters—to go toe-to-toe. It has been Sheen’s misfortune to star in two movies where the lion’s share of the attention is going to a veteran actor playing a vaguely tragic world leader, but he’s terrific as an insecure performer trying to prove that he belongs with the big boys. And Langella avoids a traditional Nixon “impression,” instead capturing both his fundamental insecurity and his rage at being damned by history. Howard may not be able fully to re-capture on film the energy of two actors clashing in live theater, but he’s such a professional that he knows exactly how to get out of their way.
Furthermore—and it’s kind of a shame that this idea should feel like a guilty admission—Frost/Nixon is simply a load of fun as a viewing experience. The script is lively and clever, there’s a terrific mix of humor and dramatic fireworks, and it all builds to the kind of finale that’s reminiscent of an underdog sports movie—as well as finding the irony of the guy who was burned in the 1960 presidential debate forgetting the power of television again. Plenty of tedious, grandiose year-end movies could learn a thing or two from one that just knows how to treat an audience right.
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt