Ron Howard has made his best movie with Frost/Nixon, an electric political drama with a skin-prickling immediacy.
Howard and his screenwriter, Peter Morgan (who also wrote the original play) have the wit to portray British TV interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) as David and Goliath. Frost's slingshot is a weapon that proved deadly to Nixon once before, during the Nixon/Kennedy TV debates: the all-seeing eye of the close-up lens.
His army of Israelites, intent on felling Nixon three years after President Gerald Ford pardoned him, are journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), Watergate expert and author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), British TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) and Frost's smart, glamorous lover, Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall). Cushing and Birt offer Frost unwavering support; Zelnick and Reston act like his political Jiminy Crickets, trying to imbue this amiable Brit with the outrage Americans felt over Tricky Dick getting off scot-free for obstruction of justice.
The president's post-White House chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a former Marine, leads Nixon's army of Philistines, hoping to use the Frost/Nixon interviews to rehabilitate the tainted ex-chief executive. Bacon is typically remarkable as a right-hand man whose devotion to his boss becomes a kind of love. (No one plays servicemen better than Bacon: He was the only believable Marine in A Few Good Men.)
Toby Jones is just as extraordinary as Nixon's agent, Swifty Lazar, who mistakes his own mastery of deal-making for omniscience. That's why he assures Nixon that an encounter with Frost will be "a big wet kiss." It's piquant to remember that one-time press assistant Diane Sawyer - yes, that Diane Sawyer - was part of Nixon's team; Kate Jennings Grant plays her pleasantly in the movie.
The film whizzes by with shrewd vignettes of showbiz and political negotiations, leading to their intersection in the interviews, the apex of media-political events. With the same skill at siphoning essential drama from real events that Morgan displayed in his Tony Blair duo The Deal and The Queen (both starring Sheen as Blair), the writer emphasizes Frost's celebrity-fueled confidence and his dubious status as being famous for being famous. The Frost of this film believes that no matter how slippery a medium is the broadcast interview, he can use it to keep Nixon cornered. He offers Nixon $600,000 for intense, marathon interviews without first assembling a network of TV stations or major sponsors to back up this expensive inquisition.
Even if you remember the outcome precisely, Howard and Morgan and their superb cast conjure suspense from Frost's hubris and comedy-drama from the surprisingly diverse mesh of ambitious talents that Frost brought together for his big event. Platt's smart, expansive Zelnick and Rockwell's justice-driven, rueful Reston worry that their boss has ambitions no greater than to become king of the media. Frost must spend too much precious energy striving to win advertisers and maintain his entertainment career. (As a film producer, he opens a lavish Cinderella movie musical, The Slipper and the Rose, at the same time he's putting on the interviews.)
Playing Blair in The Deal and The Queen, Sheen conveyed a canny, educated gentleman's instinctive connection to the Zeitgeist. But watching him multitask without 21st-century technology in Frost/Nixon, the audience, too, wonders whether he'll blow the opportunity to wring an admission of guilt from Nixon.
That's partly because Langella superbly invests Nixon with Shakespearean dimension. Langella views Nixon as a walking well of loneliness with no discernible bottom. He's maladroit socially. But his brooding aura gets to people, and he knows it. Langella imbues Nixon with a tragic aura, because he makes him both bigger and smaller than life. He has more intellectual reach than anyone around him (he even plays his own classical concerto on the piano), but he can't relate to other people unless he sees them as die-hard allies. Langella charges running jokes with enriching ambiguities, so when his Nixon asks Frost if he doesn't find Italian loafers too "effeminate" or whether the younger man did "any fornicating" the night before, you wonder how much of it's a mind game and how much is just clueless.
In sci-fi spectacles, we're used to moments that test our belief in a shared fantasy. Frost/Nixon is the rare docudrama that reaches a similar point when Nixon makes a drunken Friday-night phone call to Frost. Tricky Dick says he sees them both as provincial guys who prove themselves to Oxbridge or Ivy League snobs by fighting their way into the limelight. The scene clinches Morgan's idea that, under the TV lights, Nixon forged a bond with Frost that shook the ex-president out of his wary solitude and left him open to emotional exposure. Langella and Sheen respond to this vision believably and beautifully. They persuade you to grant Morgan his poetic license.
At the beginning, Nixon sees the interviews as easy paydays and Frost himself as a pushover. Morgan, Howard and Sheen never commit that error, not even at the start, when Frost seems just a young man on the make. Their Frost is no dummy. He's a humorist turned journalist who functions best as a receptor: There could be antennae hidden under his mop-top, reading every signal of nervousness or calculation emanating from Nixon's hunched body and furrowed brow. Sheen is nonpareil at playing verbally glib characters who articulate deep feelings in subtle or fleeting expressions. His Frost is always ready for his close-ups.
Howard proves himself the perfect director for Sheen, Langella and Hall, too, who conjures a worldly warmth for Cushing from a battery of glittering smiles. About 10 years ago, in EDtv, Howard made an erratic, prescient comedy about reality TV, decrying the loss of privacy in the era of The Real World and Kenneth Starr. In Frost/Nixon, Howard deploys everything he has learned about acting, and everything he has known since childhood about the television medium, to celebrate one of TV's highest functions: its power to serve as an audiovisual lie detector. The fluid camerawork and the crackerjack editing make now-distant events feel present tense (accent on the tense) - yet Howard, the seasoned film director, also realizes when to slow down for a millisecond to note details like Frost dropping his clipboard before he moves in for the kill.
Zelnick says Frost was the perfect man to confront Nixon because "he understood television." Howard is the right man for Frost/Nixon because he understands television and movies, too.
(Universal) Starring Michael Sheen, Frank Langella. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated R for language. Time 122 minutes.