"No holds barred," Richard Nixon urges to David Frost as the two prepare to sit down for a series of interviews in 1977. As the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon powerfully reveals, that statement contains equal parts promise and threat from both the disgraced figure on screen and the actor playing him.
Frank Langella is positively formidable as the former president, a skilled manipulator under optimal circumstances whose desperate desire for rehabilitation makes him extra dangerous.
Langella isn't doing a dead-on impression, which is preferable; Nixon's quirks have been imitated so frequently and poorly, such an approach risks lapsing into caricature. Rather, he has internalised a combination of inferiority, awkwardness, wit and a hunger for power. He loses himself in the role with rumbles and growls, with a hunched carriage and the slightest lift of the eyebrows.
Langella and Michael Sheen, also excellent as the breezy British TV personality Frost, reprise the parts they originated in Peter Morgan's Tony Award-winning stage production. But you never feel like you're watching a play on film: The way Morgan opens up the proceedings in his screenplay feels organic under the direction of Ron Howard, who has crafted his finest film yet.
Frost/Nixon is talky and weighty as it digs into the details of Vietnam and Watergate, but it moves along with a fluidity that keeps it engaging. Morgan's script also contains a healthy amount of dark humour, mostly the result of something crass or inappropriate Nixon has said. Good thing, too, because the tension starts percolating early and only grows.
Frost approaches Nixon for an interview and promises money he doesn't have so he can lose the perception that he's a lightweight and gain some credibility.
Sheen is doing something subtle here, and as in his work as Tony Blair in Morgan's The Queen, he's likely to get upstaged, unfortunately. All his Frost wants is to be liked, but he strives for that with the slightest obsequiousness.
The former president, meanwhile, hopes to use the opportunity to return to public life among the East Coast elite: He's bored with retirement and feels humiliated droning on for banquet crowds for cash. He wants an interviewer with heft, but he'll take Frost's $600,000.
And so they face each other for four extended interviews, which comprise the film's second hour. Frost has gotten help cramming for this exam from British TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), veteran journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author and Nixon critic James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). In Nixon's corner are loyalists including the fierce strategist Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Performances from the chief supporting players are uniformly excellent, especially from Platt and Rockwell, whose characters rib each other and share a disdain of Frost's celebrity.
But Zelnick puts it best when he calls Frost "the most unlikely white knight, but a man who had one big advantage over all of us. He understood television". And television exposed both Frost and Nixon for their true natures – for better and for worse.