When a stage play is adapted for the cinema, there’s always a risk that it loses its potency, such are the differences between the mediums. While the stage is more intimate and emotional, those traits can be sucked dry by the more expansive, dynamic needs of the screen.

Fortunately, in the case of Frost/Nixon, this is never remotely a possibility. On a base level it’s a battle of good versus evil, pure Hollywood fodder, with Nixon as a kind of real-life Darth Vader. Based on David Frost’s interviews with the shamed ex-president, it has all the ingredients a film needs, though with the added dramatic personal resonance of the stage play.

Treading water presenting in Australia, Frost hatches the bold idea to tackle Nixon after clocking the ratings for the resignation speech following the Watergate scandal. Over months, Frost vainly struggles to raise the money to make the project happen after Nixon’s desire for redemption – and greed - give him the green light.

Hiring producer John Birt, and enlisiting journalist Bob Zelnick and writer James Reston to help research Nixon and his nefarious activities while in power, Frost also struggles to keep the project going as it threatens to fall apart - and ruin his career into the process.

There are also serious doubts about the potential success of the interviews should they actually get that far: though shamed and discredited, Nixon escaped unscathed, pardoned by his successor, thus depriving the American people of the joy of seeing him suffer.

Seeing this as a chance to nail the swine and get the apology he refused to give, Americans Zelnick and Reston are aghast that the lightweight Frost seems to view it in terms of viewing figures rather than payback. Their fears are soon realised, as the skilled drone-factory Nixon toys with Frost, expertly holding him at arm’s length, rendering much of the footage as little more than PR fluff.

The final day’s shooting offers Frost one last chance to pin something on Nixon, save his career and strike a blow for the American people…

With two big performances from the leads at its core, the pair’s verbal pugilism makes for tense viewing, and round out the story. Seemingly doomed to impressionist-type roles of late, Sheen pushes deeper and balances the man’s drive with his flamboyance, while Langella gives humanity, sad isolation and anguish to one of the biggest swines in recent political history.

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Director Ron Howard has done a fine job of expanding what’s essentially a two-man piece into a full-blown film. The support characters broaden the film’s focus, highlighting the loyalty Nixon continued to inspire. All the while, the film sticks reasonably firmly to the events, only amplifying the drama of the original interviews and tweaking for the sake of the narrative, as illustrated in the extras.

Curious as a historical document, and compelling as a work of drama, Frost/Nixon makes dry-ass political debate seem far more potent and exciting than anyone ever thought possible.

Rating: 15
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Ron Howard

Extras: deleted scenes, featurettes, commentary

Sections TV