Frost/Nixon is the best boxing movie released in 2008. Words and wits stand in for gloves and fists.
In This Corner...
R for some language
President Nixon (Frank Langella) had resigned in disgrace and President Ford had granted him a pardon. Those of us too young to remember those days may think of the pardon as a gracious way to allow the country to move on, but there were people at the time (Sam Rockwell’s character embodies them) who saw it as a denial of justice. Ron Howard, directing a screenplay by Peter Morgan, promotes a fight that pits heavyweight Richard M. Nixon in one corner against featherweight David Frost, fighting for History itself, in the other.
David Frost is a small-time TV talk show host. A British citizen, the movie finds him working in Australia, having been unable to secure a job at the BBC. Frost — probably like a lot of reporters at the time — gets the idea to interview Nixon on television. It can’t hurt to ask.
Nixon’s handlers, meanwhile, are carefully considering their options. They want to be paid for any interview they grant, and they want to set the terms of the debate. Obviously, Nixon would rather talk about his long service than about Watergate. They see Frost as a lightweight that they can push around. Better yet, Frost is willing to pay handsomely for the interview.
The film follows Frost as he tries to finance the interview, and once it’s arranged, the film introduces his producing partners (played by Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Matthew Macfayden). Their charisma offsets the visually boring montages of research and late-night brainstorming. We also see into the Nixon camp as his aides (led by Kevin Bacon) try to predict and outmaneuver Frost.
Rooting for the Underdog
Frost/Nixon is very watchable. The pacing is excellent. After 90 minutes you think, “okay I like the characters and I’m ready for the movie to start.” Howard squanders that goodwill by including one or two too many codas, but all in all, it’s a lively two hours. The film is based on a stage play, but it never feels claustrophobic.
Frost/Nixon has some great performances. In the film’s great battle of wits, Nixon has the advantages of being an elder statesman and formerly the most powerful man in the world. He even has an advantage in old-fashioned guts.
Frost’s advantages lie in his familiarity with the medium. He comes across as a shallow peacock, but on the cool medium of TV it plays well. His partners lend him lots of support as well, particularly Rockwell’s character, who has such a genuine anger at Nixon’s crimes that he refuses to let Frost lose. At first, Frost’s home-court advantage and the support of his coaches is not enough to stand up to Nixon’s verbal pummeling. It’s not until he realizes that his reputation and his financial future are on the line that he begins to understand how serious his endeavor is, and he starts working out for the final bout.
Unfortunately, the great turning point in the film boils down to yet another montage.
The Main Event
The best reason to see Frost/Nixon is the performance by Langella as Nixon. The interview is just a conversation, but for the characters — and for the actors playing them — it really is a battle. Nixon has all the advantages, but there is still a well of fear just beneath the confident surface. Langella lets us see both, but he’s very careful not to let the other characters see him sweat.
But don’t look too deep below the surface. Sure, there’s some Bush-bashing parallels: a president is leaving office in disgrace after abusing his power, lying to the American people, and dragging our armed forces into a needless war. But there’s really not much more to Frost/Nixon than meets the eye. It really is a battle of wits. And if you’d rather see that than a boxing movie, then get your tickets today.