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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Frost/Nixon (2008)

PUBLISHED: 15:25 16 August 2018 | UPDATED: 15:25 16 August 2018

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) meets David Frost (Michael Sheen) for the first time in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) meets David Frost (Michael Sheen) for the first time in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

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Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

David Frost (Michael Sheen) prepares for the final interview with the evasive Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon Photo: UniversalDavid Frost (Michael Sheen) prepares for the final interview with the evasive Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

Frost/Nixon; dir: Ron Howard; starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones Cert: 15 (2008)

The original events made history live on the world’s TV screens. This complex and compelling movie helps the world make sense of those events. In the years following Watergate Richard Nixon was a disgraced President, a man removed from office, but never brought before a court.

His vain attempt to explain himself and clear his name on a TV interview with David Frost, who he regarded as a lightweight entertainment journalist, became the trial he never faced. Frost through skill and tenacity got Nixon to not only admit to wrongdoing but also to apologise for it.

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) is coached for the David Frost interviews in Frost/Nixon Photo: UniversalRichard Nixon (Frank Langella) is coached for the David Frost interviews in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

Based on the award-winning Peter Morgan (The Queen) play, Ron Howard has opened out the action to give the interviews between Frost and Nixon some context.

We know that David Frost, played with uncanny accuracy by Michael Sheen, is worried about his career losing its momentum. This feeling is not helped by the fact that his idea of a hard-hitting interview with the former President is not taken up by any of the major US networks and he forced to fund the entire project out of his own pocket.

A sense of doom seems to pervade the whole venture. Richard Nixon was not called Tricky Dicky for nothing and Frost’s researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) are worried that he’s in over his head.

Nixon (Frank Langella) meets his adversary David Frost (Michael Sheen) accompanied by girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) in Frost/Nixon  Photo: UniversalNixon (Frank Langella) meets his adversary David Frost (Michael Sheen) accompanied by girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

While the play focuses in on the interviews – and these do form the heart of the film – Ron Howard takes time to set the scene and recreates the period brilliantly. It’s a period that he knows well. It’s the time that he was starring in films like American Graffiti and was starting his highly successful run in Happy Days.

All the scene-setting and the building of tension provides both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella the perfect platform to revisit these titans one last time and the format of the movie allows them both to get under the skin of their characters.

They get to strip away the pretensions and tear down the safety barriers that both men have constructed for their own protection. This becomes a war of words – a duel to the death. Each man needs a different outcome if they are to survive.

The interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon were a verbal duel Photo: UniversalThe interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon were a verbal duel Photo: Universal

David Frost has his livelihood, not to mention his professional reputation, riding on the fact that he will extract a confession out of Nixon, while the former President needs to exonerate himself in the eyes of the people if is ever to return to politics and secure his place in history.

Even though we know the outcome in the hands of these two skilled actors and in Peter Morgan’s powerful and well-constructed script we are treated to an emotional rollercoaster ride we can never forget.

The power of the performances are such that on each re-watching you are convinced that the ending could somehow change. There is a real sense of unpredictability and jeopardy about the film.

Richard Nixon and David Frost share a moment of mutual respect after the interviews are finished as Nixon has apologised for letting down a nation in Frost/Nixon Photo: UniversalRichard Nixon and David Frost share a moment of mutual respect after the interviews are finished as Nixon has apologised for letting down a nation in Frost/Nixon Photo: Universal

The other interesting film which becomes very apparent when viewing the film now is that it is alarmingly current. This is a film that was shot in 2008, examining events which happened in 1973 and 1974, but change the identities of interviewer and more importantly President and it could be set today.

They say that unless we learn from history, then we are condemned to relive our history over and over until we get it right. It would appear that Frost/Nixon is a very effective illustration of that.

Although, Ron Howard has cast some amazing supporting actors, including Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen and Oliver Platt, no-one has very much to do. Rebecca Hall adds some colour and shows Frost as a rather smug would-be lothario. Hall’s well-heeled researcher, however, is more than a match for her rather egotistical boyfriend.

Ron Howard shoots the film as if this is were a real duel, cutaways emphasising the cut and thrust of the exchanges, the wariness of the combatants as they sized each other up. Morgan is a master of dialogue and Sheen and Langella use it well to reveal sub-text in the situation and in their characters. More is revealed than said. It’s a film that pays dividends if you are paying attention.

Frost/Nixon is a great film because the performances are thoughtful characterisations rather than impersonations and it is not so much concerned with replicating the interviews as explaining them and revealing to later generations why they mattered and still matter.

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