This could be the not so long awaited sequel to Oliver Stone's epic biopic of Richard Nixon. Director Ron Howard picks up right where Stone left off with the former president and his wife Pat exiting the White House and moving toward the twilight of their lives.
It seemed like such a dismal ending. Yet, if you were wondering how the 37th president was doing after his resignation, you learn, not that bad.
Nixon had a lovely, seaside villa in southern California where he relaxed, played golf, ate Caviar, and worked on his 1,000-page memoir. In fact, the first time we see Nixon, he's tanned and enjoying the ocean view.
This is certainly not the Nixon we last saw in the cinema. The question becomes who is better, Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella. Langella takes on the role here in a career-defining performance, but one that may not all together seek authenticity as much as entertainment. Hopkins' performance was of an ambitious and embattled man. Langella's performance is that of a poker or perhaps chess player.
Whether Langella is convincing as Nixon or not is quite frankly irrelevant. Yes, Langella skillfully masters the mannerisms and the voice. But, what's interesting and compelling is the fact that he's excellent in this game.
The game, as it's laid out, is the 60 Minutes II-style, TV interview. What writer Peter Morgan (The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen) cleverly recognizes and is able to bring to life is the intricacies in this tennis match. In any review of the plot of this movie, I would be less like Roger Ebert and more like James Brown, Howie Long or Scott Abraham. I would just be color commentating on the play-by-plays.
The basic idea of the game is two people sit opposite each other. One has something that he wants the other to say and it's up to him to get that person to say it. Yes, it's an interview, but it's also so much more. It's a verbal dual. Yet, it has the hallmarks of a Barbara Walters special mixed with an intense courtroom examination.
Michael Sheen plays David Frost, the British talk show host, who reckons in 1974 that he can get Nixon to talk to him on-camera and that he can get Nixon to spill about the Watergate scandal. Many were outraged following Nixon's pardon that he would get away with what he did with no admission of guilt nor any apologies. Frost dared to change that, or at least get some kind of explanation.
The filmmakers spell out the rules of the game. Here, the rules are referred to as the contractual agreement, but, like with any game, be it tennis or baseball, it basically establishes things like time limits and topics and etcetera, the so-called boundaries.
In the first half of the film, you see Frost basically in preparation. He, along with his team, are gearing up for a boxing match. Frost is the one who has to step into the ring with Nixon who's comparatively a Mike Tyson. Except, Frost has to be his own Don King. There are business and financial matters that take up more of his time that he should be devoting to beefing up his interviewing skills.
As we come to learn, Nixon didn't do this interview out of the goodness of his heart. He did it because Frost paid him a lot of money. The fun part, however, is just because Nixon is getting a check doesn't mean he has to make Frost's job any easier.
Frost fancies himself prepared to go up against Nixon. He thinks he's going to ask him questions to throw Nixon off guard and get him to sweat, as Nixon did during his debate with John F. Kennedy.
Sadly, Frost is hardly the wind that shakes Nixon's barley. The entire interview is divided into various sessions. After the first session, it becomes painfully obvious that Frost is no match for Nixon. It's Frost who ends up sweating by the end.
Frost is dumbfounded and anxious, certainly intimidated. Nixon is cool, calm, and confident, and comes across as a controlled, even-handed statesman. Frost is like a deer caught in headlights. For example, Frost is unable to stop Nixon's filibustering on topics that are sure not to score any high ratings. Frost is clearly like jelly while Nixon has nerves of steel. Nixon mops the floor with Frost.
The interview session that delves into the Vietnam and Cambodia situation could draw some parallels to certain people, namely those in the Bush administration. Nevertheless, this feels less like a political film, and just a verbal battle, yet completely civil, anchored by Langella's performance that makes Nixon a fun character.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 2 mins.