Ten minutes into watching the absorbing Frost/Nixon, it’s easy to forget you are watching an actor portray Richard Nixon. Frank Langella transforms himself into the ex-President so convincingly, the film soon feels like a reality show, even though such programming didn’t exist in 1977.
We are behind the scenes watching David Frost (Michael Sheen), a popular television host in Britain and Australia, take on the ultimate challenge: besting Nixon in a series of televised debates. No U.S. network will agree to take on the project and advertisers begin to fall away. Frost, fighting for his professional life and reputation, puts up the money himself and then struggles to deliver the blockbuster interview that will bring in ratings and dollars.
The film, directed by Ron Howard, takes liberties in dramatizing the aftermath of the interviews. Yes, Frost got his headlines, made a lot of money, and recharged his TV career. Nixon, however, already disgraced after resigning the Presidency, couldn’t fall much lower in the public’s mind. He admitted he participated in a cover-up and may have broken some laws and let down the American people, but we already knew all that, courtesy of Woodward and Bernstein.
Still, the movie manages to build the tension leading up to the final interview, where Frost will finally question Nixon on Watergate. The actual confrontation, with the real Nixon and Frost, was a more even match. Here, Langella has the upper hand. As an actor, Langella has two advantages. One, he is primarily a stage actor who continues to hone his craft, taking many larger-than-life characters. He played Nixon in the stage play and most recently enthralled audiences with his portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Man for All Seasons. Two, he keeps his private life very private, making it easier for him to disappear into his roles.
He was nominated for a Golden Globe and lost to Mickey Rourke for “The Wrestler.” He will face Rourke again when Hollywood awards the Oscars in February.