Beauty and the Beast…
What a mightily enjoyable film.
Frank Langella renders Richard Nixon as slower, older and heftier than he really was; somewhere between a punch drunk prize fighter and a waning silverbacked gorilla, snorting and puffing at the attentions of a glad-handing young dilettante. Michael Sheen plays that glad-handing dilettante, British talk show host David Frost in truth a little unevenly: at times caricaturing his bouffant mincing drawl like an effete Austin Powers, at times a spookily accurate rendition, at times a diluted one not a million miles away from the same actor’s celebrated portrayal of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But this unevenness is I think demanded by the script which asks us to believe the same man was by turns the sort of international playboy shagadelically chatting up first class posh girls over the mid Atlantic, a superficial chancer prepared to take on any assignment including (quel horreur!) hosting an Australian chat show, an impulsive bluffer forced into a desperate fundraising measures by a rash commitment which he couldn’t back up and an incisive political analyst, able finally to pull Richard Nixon limb from limb when it seemed all was intractably lost. I have a suspicion Frost wasn’t really any of things, at least not to anything like the degree suggested here.
But that is what good drama requires, and in this way and in others the dramatic archetypes on which the screenplay was surely based occasionally show through. In a historical drama the screenplay writer’s job is to extrude from the intractably interwoven fabric of fact a recognisable narrative when in reality one never existed. Ron Howard does this artfully but is almost too successful for his own good. The narrative prescribes a perfect “confronting the monster” trajectory, with all the phases and characters clearly articulated: henchmen, damsels, wise counsel, facilitating assistants, a call to challenge, early success, dramatic reversal and then triumph out of certain defeat.
But real life, as they say, doesn’t follow the script. Now it might just be that the Nixon interviews really did play out in so dramatically perfect a fashion, but you do have to wonder how much additional fictionalising the screenplay involves. A thoroughly implausible drunken midnight conversation, in particular, had the ring of a dramatic as opposed to historical device.
That said, for the very same reason, the Frost/Nixon is extremely entertaining and has piqued my interest enough to find out some more. Special mention should go to the extremely effective secondary cast: Sam Rockwell – not that long ago Zaphod Beeblebrox – all but unrecognisable as Frost’s excitable and overly-principled anti-Nixon researcher, Kevin Bacon’s typically assured and unflashy portrayal of Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan and Toby Jones’ creepy portrayal of Nixon’s weirdo PR Guy, Swifty Lazar.