Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen
Richard Nixon is so hot right now. Between “Watchmen” (which takes place in a dystopic version of the 1980s where Nixon is a dictator) and “Frost/Nixon” (which recounts the Nixon interviews conducted by British journalist David Frost shortly after Watergate), the Korean box office is currently saturated with representations of the notorious 37th President of the United States. And here’s a heads up: the latter is by far the better movie.
While “Frost/Nixon” isn’t very ambitious, it has few flaws. The seamless plot and arched character development make for effective storytelling, and the sprinkle of humor here and there prevents the tone from becoming self-important. Moreover, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan deserve praise for taking a potentially boring premise and turning it into a satisfying and even engaging film. Just don’t expect to be shocked or surprised at any point.
Framed like a historical drama, it’s actually more of a character study than anything else - a close-up of the shamed former president’s bruised ego after being chased out of the White House. At first, Tricky Dick doesn’t appear to have learned anything from his disgraceful downfall. Still very much the obstinate politician, he initially sees the interviews as an opportunity to redeem his tarnished reputation. To him, the criminal abuses of power he committed in office are a minor blemish on an otherwise successful presidency full of noteworthy achievements. However, as Nixon crawls back into the spotlight after years in hiding, he slowly begins to accept that he not only dissapointed his country, but himself.
“Frost/Nixon” works in large part thanks to Frank Langella, who manages to bring his character to life without recurring to impersonation (no small feat). He exudes the former president’s egotistic and self-serving nature, while also capturing his grandfatherly charm. But what’s most remarkable about Langella’s performance is that it gives a widely disliked man an undeniably human face, one that consistently registers a swollen pride tormented by guilt and personal affliction.
The screenwriter also merits his share of the credit. It seems as though Morgan has a talent for writing about the treacherous world of politics (he penned the intelligent script of “The Queen” about Queen Elizabeth II’s callous reaction to Princess Diana’s tragic death). The back and forth dialogue between the two antagonists is always top-notch, but if there’s a highlight, it’s definitely the drunken monologue Nixon delivers over the phone to Frost a few days before their session covering Watergate. The speech is raw and revealing - the former president’s buried anguish laid bare.
Of course, a lot of the most memorable lines - such as “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” - are actual quotes from the real interviews. If I have one major criticism, it’s that the film is basically a rehashing of yesterday’s infotainment. Still, Howard’s version is a nicely condensed package that makes this story more accessible and attractive to the wider movie-going audience.