Still the interview of the century

‘Frost/Nixon’ wrings suspense from a political event that captivated the world

Still the interview of the century

Long before Jon Stewart outsmarted real news with fake news, or before Sarah Palin scrambled to compete with Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, David Frost pioneered faux current affairs with That Was the Week That Was. This satirical BBC series spawned numerous clones and variations around the world—including the CBC’s controversial This Hour has Seven Days and its distant descendant, This Hour has 22 Minutes. Both Frost’s show and Seven Days were cancelled by public broadcasters that found their cocktail of news and satire too potent. Now news and entertainment are so openly incestuous that, like Palin and Fey, it’s hard to tell them apart. Stewart interrupts comedy to conduct a serious interview with Barack Obama. David Letterman humiliates John McCain for snubbing him. And CNN’s arcade-like election coverage looks like a game show from Mars.

Entertainment now drives television news, but that wasn’t the case in the 1970s, when Frost landed a series of interviews with Richard Nixon—the first audience granted by the disgraced former president since his resignation during the Watergate scandal. Frost’s career was flagging at the time. In the United States he was primarily known as the playboy host of a celebrity talk show that had been cancelled after three seasons. And serious journalists scoffed at the notion of a lightweight entertainer conducting the “interview of the century.” Everyone was so confident that Nixon would stonewall this Brit showboat, the U.S. networks weren’t even interested in bidding on its broadcast—until Frost cornered Nixon in the final round and extracted a historic confession.

Also at — The unadulterated Frost-Nixon interview

Drawing more than 45 million viewers, the Frost/Nixon faceoff became the most-watched current affairs program in television history. And now it has been re-engineered into entertainment, along with the backstage shenanigans that surrounded the event. Directed by Ron Howard—and adapted by British screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) from his own hit play—Frost/Nixon is a drama of epic hubris. The showdown between its protagonists has all the makings of a classic prizefight—a clash between two underdogs, both blinded by vanity and fighting to redeem their mangled reputations. And that’s how Howard has staged it, as a kind of political sports movie that amounts to an irresistible hybrid—Rocky meets All the President’s Men.

For a critic, it’s almost a professional embarrassment to praise a Ron Howard movie. This, after all, is a director who, on Judgement Day, will have to atone for The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man and Far and Away. But when strapped to the saddle of a true story, as he was with Apollo 13, Howard has shown he can wring suspense from an event even when the audience knows the outcome. With Frost/Nixon, he has remained faithful to the play. He insisted the actors who created the roles onstage—Michael Sheen and Frank Langella—star in the film version. And he has recruited a strong cast to play their realpolitik advisers, including Kevin Bacon as Nixon handler Lt.-Col. Jack Brennan and Sam Rockwell as author James Reston Jr.

But the movie is essentially a chamber piece pivoting on two beautifully nuanced performances. Without resorting to impersonation, Langella captures Nixon’s sly intelligence and iconic mannerisms, but also digs beneath the image to convey a tortured soul. And as Frost, Sheen oozes with the same unctuous gloss that he applied to his portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen. Even though Frost is the protagonist, scrambling to find a chink in Nixon’s rhetorical armour, the showbiz gadfly seems just as morally suspect as his prey. His is the typical conundrum of the celebrity interviewer. Showing off for a girl he picked up on the plane (Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s Rebecca Hall), when he first meets the former president his instinct is to suck up to the man he is supposed to demolish. And in the interviews, Nixon talks circles around him—until the final discussion of Watergate.

Then the drama comes down to the real-time suspense of the close-up, and the camera’s power to reveal emotion and elicit confession. Langella, who won a Tony for the role onstage, repatriates that moment to its original medium with a tour de force that should finally get him the Oscar nod he deserved for last year’s Starting Out in the Evening. And when Ron Howard, like Frost, leaves his showbiz cocoon to deliver a jolt of real substance, you know there’s a whole lotta redemption going on.

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