2008, R, 122 min. Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 26, 2008

Just when it seems the American people can’t get through a single day without a new political scandal or revelation about some brazen abuse of the public trust, there comes along a familiar old bogeyman: Richard M. Nixon. Director Howard, it seems, has gifted us this Christmas with the legend of Dick Nixon to kick around some more. Frost/Nixon is a behind-the-scenes account of the momentous interviews with Nixon conducted by British TV personality David Frost in 1977, three years after the former president had resigned from office in disgrace. The film is adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) from his play and stars the play’s two leads: Langella (who also won a Tony for this role) as Nixon and Sheen as Frost. Almost by definition, Frost/Nixon is a two-handed work, a psychological boxing match between the two protagonists, and Langella and Sheen, the actors, are evenly matched. Each man also counts a few coaches and assistants in his corner, making the taped interviews seem all the more like a prizefight. The purse? Frost seeks to shed his reputation as a lightweight journalist and gadabout and earn the attention of an even greater share of the worldwide English-speaking television audience. Nixon, ever parsimonious, is lured by the unprecedented interview fee of $600,000 and the opportunity for so much television access to the American people. In Frost’s corner are researchers James Reston Jr. (Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Platt), who are angling for the interviews to result in the Nixon apology that Gerald Ford’s pardon of the president forever obviated. Viewing their anguish as they witness Frost’s lackadaisical preparation and outright defeat during the first few interview sessions is almost like watching a comical Mutt & Jeff routine. Nixon has Jack Brennan (Bacon), a spit-shined and devoted military man who is his aide and protective right-hand man, and Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), the Hollywood agent who brokered the deal on Nixon’s behalf. It’s this stuff that provides the juice for Frost/Nixon: the unseen effort that goes into every hour of television programming. As a director, Howard is frequently drawn to such nitty-gritty. (The Paper provides one of the best newsroom portraits ever filmed; Apollo 13 shows as much, if not more, of what happens at mission control as in outer space; Backdraft, at times, has more information about the practice of firefighting than it does the movie’s characters.) Frost/Nixon is at its best when it is examining this 1977 example of the fragile intersection of media and politics. On its own, I’m not sure that this story of Frost’s chutzpah and Nixon’s intractability is inherently that gripping, which must be why Morgan inserted a purely fictional exchange (a drunken midnight call from Nixon to Frost) into the movie’s climax. Howard, no doubt, is striving for contemporary resonances about today’s media/political inbreeding, but I think that after this past presidential campaign, the lessons have progressed to an even more esoteric plane. Ultimately, Frost/Nixon may be stuck in time – but, oh, what a time it was.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Ron Howard
Opie on Top
Opie on Top
AFF to honor Ron Howard's extraordinary contribution to filmmaking

Kimberley Jones, July 14, 2009

More Ron Howard Films
Ron Howard's new documentary on the great tenor

June 14, 2019

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Should you have a bad feeling about this stand-alone Star Wars?

Richard Whittaker, May 25, 2018

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
A gentle, poetic look at gentrification in San Francisco that shimmers with the winds of history

June 14, 2019

The Tomorrow Man
Lithgow and Danner give a charming edge to this predictable doomsday prepper meet-cute

June 7, 2019


Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard, Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle