In 1977 a garrulous talk show host virtually unknown in the USA scored a world exclusive – the first interview with Richard Nixon since the Watergate scandal forced him to resign. David Frost was known mainly as a light-entertainer, and his career in the UK and Australia was already beginning to fade when he pulled off the coup of a lifetime, borrowing heavily from friends and family to fund the $1million check (Nixon's fee).
Everyone predicted the encounter would be a farce. But by the end of the interview Nixon had admitted to his criminality, and his hopes of returning to politics lay in tatters.
Adapted from a stage play, and featuring the celebrated lead actor who trod the boards in London’s West End and Broadway, Frank Langella reprises his Tony award-winning role as the astonishingly skilful as the wily statesman forced to confront the level of his disgrace by a cheap British TV huckster. Martin Sheen plays the smooth-tongued playboy interviewer David Frost, bringing a little of his previous roles to bear, most notably his Tony Blair impersonation in The Queen, which also happens to have been written by the screenwriter and playwright of this most Shakespearean of downfalls, Peter Morgan.
Ron Howard brings fluidity to the story and manages to avoid all the obviously pitfalls of the movie’s stage-bound origin, even if some of the to-screen interviews of some of the leading players in this drama feel a little corny and even synthetic. There’s a strong sense of the Californian landscape, where the interviews took place, so far from the dank intrigue of Washington DC, where Nixon languishes in exile like some deposed Roman emperor on Capri.
But there are also many interiors here. Like the Watergate scandal itself, much of this action takes place hunched over recording equipment and the shuffle of papers in hotel rooms. You can tell this has been made on a relatively low budget, but such is the craft of the acting, especially by Langella, and such is the excellence of the writing, that none of the scruffy ends of the filming matter too much.
There are good supporting performances from the likes of Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s right-hand man but Langella’s Oscar nomination seems like a shoe-in.
The film opens the London Film Festival, October 15th 2008.