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Regrets, He's Had a Few

Frost/Nixon makes a thrilling transition from stage to screen. With Ron Howard at the helm and two terrific leads, the film offers mass-market context, a succinct history lesson, and a groovy, 70s version of southern California.

Harvey vs. Tricky Dick

As the race to awards season heats up, two names keep emerging as frontrunners in the Best Actor category. Ironically, both men are playing iconic figures from the 1970’s, and they could not be more different.

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
What makes Sean Penn’s performance in Milk so astonishing is that it’s a Penn we never get to see: one that’s practically—gasp!—happy to be alive. Gone is the brooding, self-serious, wholly interior seether we are used to; in his place is a goofy, loving, affectionate “voice of the people.” Not that Harvey isn’t serious in his own way, but at the root of the character lies ebullience, not anger. And to be honest, isn’t it nice to see Penn smile?

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon
Frank Langella is a huge, imposing man, but let’s face it, he doesn’t really look like Richard Nixon. The marvel of this performance is that, by the end of the film, you forget what the real Nixon looked like. Langella is Nixon, in all his complicated significance and diminished glory. The humanity in the performance makes Nixon real, which is jarring to an audience trained to view him as a caricature of a criminal. With his begrudging—and delayed—acknowledgment of his sins, one is left almost hoping he found some measure of peace.

The Odds
Given the current political climate in California, Proposition 8 may affect this awards season in ways we have not yet anticipated. If that’s the case, then Penn is a shoo-in. Oscar does, however, love to reward long-suffering craftsmen, and Langella has been around the block a time or two. And of course, there could be a curveball in the form of a backward-living Pitt, a suburban DiCaprio, a growling Eastwood, Richard Jenkins, or a resurrected Mickey Rourke. Isn’t it exciting?

Nixon and his adoring fans


“I’ve never been challenged to a duel before.”


With that line, the disgraced 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, accepts the offer presented by David Frost, the British television host on a hunt for record-breaking ratings and career salvation.


Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon opened to rave reviews on Broadway on April 22, 2007, and had a successful four-month run. Adversaries Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen) and Frank Langella (all-around awesome acting god) crackled on stage, building tension and riffing off their characters’ desperation and hunger for redemption. Following in the tradition of other successful stage to screen adaptations—including A Few Good Men, On Golden Pond, and A Streetcar Named DesireRon Howard’s Frost/Nixon capitalizes on the film medium’s capacity to expand and deepen a work’s impact.


Opening with a montage of a civics lesson, Howard is able to set the stage for younger audiences: he introduces the cast of characters involved in the only scandal in U.S. history large enough to bring down an American president. The audience is also introduced to an ambitious David Frost, who aims to go from interviewing the BeeGees in Australia to a showdown with a more demanding foe in a more influential market. As Frost explains, “Success in America is unlike success anywhere else.”


Going from stage to screen allowed Howard to open up to multiple—and real—locations, and to show a world far away from uptight Washington. Not only does the audience see a very 70s Beverly Hilton—and requisite celebrity disco with a singing Neil Diamond—but Howard even convinced the current owners of La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente to allow filming onsite. The result is a fascinating look inside the home where Nixon spent a restless and unhappy retirement-cum-exile (he claims to hate golf). Still in denial, Nixon clearly itches to get back to the action of politics (he also seems to be cash-poor, or just greedy), making him ripe for the picking when Frost approached with his offer.


David Frost and Team in Frost/NixonAfter comical negotiations between Frost and Nixon’s agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones, whose recent turns as Truman Capote and Karl Rove have made him the go-to guy for toad-like impressions), the two men come to terms. The 20+ hours of interviews during March and April 1977 covered four topics: domestic affairs, foreign policy, Nixon the Man, and Watergate. In the film, Sheen and Langella are supported by an entertaining cast that includes Sam Rockwell as a grudge-holding Nixon historian, Oliver Platt as a veteran reporter with gravitas, and Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s loyal sidekick, a military man with an unshaken reverence for the presidency. (Kate Jennings Grant also appears as a mute Diane Sawyer, one of the researchers on Nixon’s team.)


During the interview portion onstage, Tony-nominated director Michael Grandage used television sets to highlight the medium and to play to the back of the house. By projecting the two men’s faces onto multiple screens, he allowed audiences to experience Langella’s big, jowly mug—and Nixon’s denouement—in a cinematic way. Howard didn’t need to do this—seeing Langella on the big screen is powerful enough—but he still uses television screens to give the audience the experience of what Nixon looked like to viewers at home.


Sheen-as-Frost is a formidable opponent to Langella’s Tony-winning Nixon impersonation. As a man fighting his reputation as a mimbo, Sheen’s facial expressions paint a portrait of a man who has lived a life of insecurity while taking great pains to appear overly confident. When the term “talk show host” is leveled as an insult, Sheen bristles, but as the film progresses, we see his transition from lightweight performer—Frost got his start as a comedian—to well-prepared interviewer.


Nixon and Frost in a HandshakeA centerpiece of the film is the much-discussed (and certainly fictional) late-night phone call from a (less drunk than in the play) Nixon to Frost’s room at the Beverly Hilton, in which Nixon suggests the two men are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are striving for public acceptance, though Nixon’s appraisal of them as “lost souls, trying to find their way back to the limelight,” is met with Frost’s recognition that “the limelight can only shine on one of us.” And thus, the final leg of the duel is commenced, with both men “focused and ready for battle.”


And battle they do. Though most people attribute the transition from hard news to news-tainment to the advent of 24-hour news channels in the 1990’s, celebu-news was happening decades earlier.  Those who remember the series—which was the most-watched television news event of all time in 1977—know what a gripping event it was; they also remember the monumental outcome.


With The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan proved his talent for humanizing larger-than-life figures. (On an iconic level, Nixon falls somewhere between Queen Elizabeth II and Idi Amin.) In Frost/Nixon, Morgan reveals another skill: the ability to adapt his own work from stage to screen; he and Howard take excellent advantage of film’s capacity for building tension. Though the play was riveting, this Frost/Nixon ramps up the stakes: the result is an intellectual thriller.

Buy tickets to Frost/Nixon, opening everywhere on Friday, December 5.

Tell us what other plays you'd like to see turned into movies!

You can also see the actual interviews, released just this month on DVD.


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