Ron Howard’s big-screen version of the historic 1977 television showdown between David Frost and Richard Nixon could so easily have failed to excite. Political jousting between Frost, a lightweight British talk-show host, and Nixon, a disgraced President, is hardly the stuff to keep today’s generation of filmgoers glued to the screen.
But that is to under-estimate the world’s enduring fascination with Watergate. The passage of time has done little to assuage the sense of betrayal felt by Americans forced to face up to presidential wrongdoing. Over three decades later, the scrutiny to which presidential conduct is subjected is sharper than ever, thanks to the very events which are the film’s backdrop.
It is not just the significance of the meeting, and the unfolding relationship between the two protagonists, that gives the film its momentum. The dramas being played out in the wings tell stories of their own. First we have Frank Langella’s captivating portrayal of Nixon, a complex mix of fear coupled with determination, sharpness of wit edged with bitterness, always opportunistic when it comes to the question of dollars. He wants rehabilitation but spurns self-abasement. He is out to survive, but knows that he’s beaten.
But it is Frost and his hastily cobbled together research and production team that best capture the moment. It was Frost who had the vision; Frost who understood that the world would want to know what Nixon had to say; Frost who believed that he was the man who could make him say it. But faced with a reaction from the networks that ranged from lukewarm to downright obstructive, Frost had to put up his own millions to pursue the prize. In the end it paid off, but it so nearly didn’t. And it’s the sense of how close the project danced with failure that pervades the film. Quite apart from who said what and when, it is this that makes Frost/Nixon unmissable and a deserved hit.