Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
Some movies crop back up years after their release and demand attention because of the context they offer in relation to real-life events that have since taken place. Such is the case here, given our preoccupation with a certain impeachment controversy you might have stumbled upon.
It’s a 2009 cat-and-mouse drama in which the mouse wants to be the cat. It’s a David-Goliath faceoff in which David seeks Goliath status. It’s Frosty the Show Man versus Tricky Dick.
Director Ron Howard’s fact-based drama, adapted from the play of the same name, is a creative-liberties-taking docudrama about the confrontational landmark interviews between television personality David Frost and disgraced president Richard Nixon, televised in 1977 to what was at the time the largest audience for a news program in TV history.
Michael Sheen plays dapper David Frost, the famous but fading TV host and superficial playboy who yearns to be taken seriously as a broadcast journalist, even as he ducks brickbats about checkbook journalism because of the big bucks he has offered his Big Get.
Frank Langella plays ill-at-ease Richard Nixon, the tortured and humbled ex-world leader, bored with retirement and hoping to repair his tarnished reputation in the wake of Watergate and spruce up his legacy — and who likes the payday on hand.
While Frost raises the money for the undertaking, Nixon agrees to sit down for a series of one-on-one interviews in which two men of enormous ego encounter each other from adjacent chairs in an adversarial duet that will underscore the similarities between them and change each of them.
We’re equally fascinated by the backstage process in preparation for the heavyweight bout as the two camps jockey for position, strategize for advantage, and manipulate for posterity. And Howard deftly punctuates the film with snippets of interviews with these characters as well as actual archival news footage.
“Frost/Nixon” is among the best works in the accomplished career of populist producer-director Howard, who, as the child star of “The Andy Griffith Show” and the youthful star of “Happy Days,” certainly knows the effects-of-TV terrain. And he certainly has the advantage of a fine screenplay by the playwright, Peter Morgan, that explores the twilight between historical fact and fiction.
Thus was the film showered with five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The director also has the stars of the London and Broadway stage productions re-creating their triumphant roles. But beyond that, Howard’s work with his consummate actors is exemplary. Tony winner and Oscar nominee for Best Actor Frank Langella is mesmerizing as ever-furrowed Nixon, astonishingly convincing despite the lack of physical resemblance. And Sheen is terrific as the ever-grinning Frost, an open book of a charmer with a surprise or two up his flashy sleeve.
Ron Howard’s splendid small-scale drama about the intersection of media and politics is an intensely engrossing drama with contemporary relevance that’s nearly obscured by the brilliant acting. But when you come right down to the basic reason why “Frost/Nixon” is such an absolutely riveting experience: it’s Sheen/Langella.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.