Doubt and Frost/Nixon have a lot in common: Both are stage-to-screen adaptations, both are receiving a lot of awards buzz, and neither has a particularly compelling visual story to tell. Instead, the drama lies in the words people are saying. I've heard both of these movies referred to as "grown-up" cinema, which is probably apt given that it takes a pretty mature attention span to fully appreciate them.
All this might sound a bit boring but Frost/Nixon actually ends up being just the opposite. Playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan is proving to be an expert at lifting the curtain on some of history's most intriguing leaders and applying his imagination to the factual outlines of their lives (he also wrote The Queen and The Last King of Scotland). To see why I think Morgan — with the help of director Ron Howard — has created another smart and absorbing movie,
Frost/Nixon revisits some familiar cinematic ground with Richard Nixon. The disgraced thirty-seventh President of the United States has come to symbolize so many things and is often regarded as a deeply flawed, morally-challenged, Machiavellian caricature of himself. That's fun stuff for dramatists! It's no wonder everyone from Oliver Stone to Gene Hackman has tackled the man. Heck, there's even a book called Nixon at the Movies. But Morgan, Howard and Co. tell a new story with this movie, a story of the president's post-resignation TV inquisition by the most unlikely journalist/TV personality.
Frost (played by Michael Sheen reprising his stage role) is the underdog in this scenario who will take numerous punches while interviewing President Nixon (Frank Langella, who also originated the role on stage). Langella's Nixon is giant and lumbering and doesn't bear all that much resemblance to the actual guy. The power of his performance lies in the way he conveys the complexities and emotions of a man who was practically kicked out of the White House.
Frost sets out to resuscitate his career by getting Nixon to sit down for a multi-session television interview with the metaphorical death blow being when he corners the president into giving the American people the confession of guilt he'd thus far avoided. Frost and his research team (played with humor and charm by Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and the super cute Matthew Macfadyen) come up against all kinds of obstacles in between each sit-down — including getting someone to pay for and air the interview. Meanwhile, Nixon's intellect and question-dodging abilities prove to be formidable, giving this talkfest most of its nail-biting moments.
In retrospect it's amazing that so much talking between two men about familiar events can lend itself to such a natural dramatic arc. This is a well-matched duel between two giant egos. Both are in it for something but only one can triumph. Nixon is a tough beast to slay, but just when you think Frost is down, you can bet (as is the case in most movies based on a match like this) the little guy will eventually rally. All in all, it's a smart movie that manages to get your adrenaline pumping with lots of words.
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures