Universal // 2008 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // May 4th, 2009
400 Million People Were Waiting for the Truth
Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code) weaves a suspenseful tale of truth and accountability. The story is well known: In 1977, disgraced US President Richard Nixon sat down for a series of interviews with talk show host David Frost. Nixon wound up going toe-to-toe with a formidable opponent, and the outcome was far from what anyone expected. Hailed by critics for stellar performances and a crackling screenplay, Frost/Nixon has landed on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal.
Frost/Nixon just shouldn't work as a film. On paper, the idea of a 2-hour film following a British television personality and his team of researchers as they prepare to take on "Tricky Dick" himself, shot in a pseudo-documentary style no less, should be a stuffy and dull affair. This film is anything but, it is a treatise on accountability and truth in our leaders. The questions posed to Nixon about Watergate are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1977, particularly after looking at the activities of the Bush-era White House.
At the center of the film are Michael Sheen (Underworld) and Frank Langella (Good Night, and Good Luck) reprising the roles they played in the stage production as David Frost and Richard Nixon respectively. Sheen's Frost is the quintessential jet-setter, all pearly whites, Italian loafers and snazzy outfits. Langella doesn't imitate Nixon so much as become him, and though he may not be the spitting image of the ex-president, Langella nails Nixon's mannerisms, his sense of presence and his dry personality. Langella's portrayal of Nixon earned him a Tony award as well as a Best Actor nod at the Oscars this year (a nod he should have won), and Sheen is every bit as good, proving he's much more than warewolves and Tony Blair. These men sell themselves so incredibly well that it's imnpossible not to get caught up in the film.
Frost and Nixon are both outsiders, exiled from the worlds they've inhabited. Frost has made the best of a career in Australia interviewing celebrities and doing puff pieces, though his thoughts drift to greener pastures where he's a serious and respected journalist. Meanwhile Richard Nixon struggles through health problems, and attempts to face life as a private citizen after picking up the pieces of his shattered presidency. Both men hunger for the limelight and see the interviews arranged by Frost, at great personal expense, as a shot at redemption. Nixon in particular battles feelings of intense loneliness and isolation that he hopes will vanish when he gets back to where the action is. When the interviews do begin, Nixon immediately takes control, and what follows is a bout of verbal back-and-forth that's every bit as good as a boxing match. Initially, Nixon readily deflects any barrage Frost attempts to throw his way, but anyone familiar with the history behind the story already knows how it all ultimately ends. That doesn't make the final day of the interview sessions any less tense. The fact that so much suspense can come from two people in a relatively comfortable room exchanging dialogue without the typically Hollywood shouting matches speaks volumes. When that final round began, I literally found myself on the edge of my seat.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent supporting cast. Matthew McFayden (Death at a Funeral), Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), and Oliver Platt (The Ice Harvest) all give great performances as Frost's team, Rockwell in particular reminds us that he really is one of the most criminally neglected actors in today's Hollywood. Kevin Bacon (Stir of Echoes) also holds his own as Nixon's chief of staff, and Toby Jones is suitably slimey as Nixon's agent, Swifty Lazar.
Peter Morgan's screenplay transfers well from his original stage version and combines with Ron Howard's atypically chaotic style to make for a brisk pace that doesn't let up and infuses the piece with a sense of urgency and dramatic tension. The film was shot on a very short schedule and slight budget, and it shows that there was little room for tinkering; it makes for a tighter, more focused film than I'm used to from Mr. Howard.
Universal's Blu-ray treatment of Frost/Nixon is a fantastic look at the "Ugly decade" with a nice lick of 21st century Hollywood gloss. The picture is fantastic, featuring just the right amount of grain without marring the clarity and color depth of the image. The audio is dialogue heavy, but the DTS-HD master audio never sounds anything but great. Universal is also pretty generous with the extra features, starting off with a great commentary track from Ron Howard. Howard, as always, is a charismatic and pleasant speaker, and he remains pretty engaging throughout. Several included features cover the making of the film, the real Frost/Nixon interviews, and the real people portrayed in the film. They're a welcome extra, even if they do occasionally boarder on studio promotional blather and there is a little information overlap between the features and the commentary. You get a few deleted and alternate scenes which really don't add much, and then there's the Blu-ray exclusive U-Control feature, which is a pretty extensive collection of picture-in-picture featurettes and pop up info.
While Morgan's screenplay works incredibly well from a film perspective, some may be turned off by the fiction he's blended with fact. Rather than stick to the true course of events, Morgan readily admits to using his imagination to add some drama to the proceedings. The dramatic arc follows a pretty typical and predictable pattern, and one particular bit of deus ex machina appears towards the end of the film, just prior to the final interview, is entirely fictional, and works to completely shift the fortunes of the characters. It's not a huge deal to me, but this scene in particular undermines the honesty of the rest of the film, and may not please those more concerned with historical accuracy. I don't consider it a problem, as long as people realize that the film isn't striving for complete historical accuracy, and it truly is one hell of a wonderful scene, beautifully carried by Langella. Hard to believe that this guy once played Skeletor in a Masters of the Universe film.
It would be easy to credit Frost/Nixon's success to any one member of the cast or crew, but this is a prime example of director, script, ensemble cast, and editing all firing at full capacity and in perfect harmony. Frost/Nixon is a truly stellar effort. In my opinion it's the strongest film of 2008. It easily trumps anything else Ron Howard has done, and Michael Sheen and Frank Langella turn in career best performances alongside a strong supporting cast. Universal's Blu-ray treatment is also top drawer, and I highly recommend it to fans of a good political potboiler.
Like President Ford, I'm giving Nixon a full pardon. Frost can go too.
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes