Frost/Nixon, Gala opening, London Film Festival

3.00

A rumble in the studio as Frost takes aim at Nixon

Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon is a perverse endeavour – a big Hollywood film based on a chamber play that was in its turn inspired by a 1977 TV interview by chatshow host David Frost of disgraced former US president Richard Nixon. In one way, film is the perfect medium for a drama that ultimately hinges on a single close-up when, after all his evasions and self-deceptions, Nixon finally accepts guilt for his role in the Watergate scandal. Nixon, played with real gravitas and pathos by Frank Langella, is suddenly seen at his most vulnerable. His face is a map of conflicting emotions. Seen on a big screen, this moment has a power that would be hard to match either on stage or TV. However, the rest of the film rarely matches this sequence in either its intensity or its simplicity.

For all the archive footage, flash backs and flash forwards and attempts to give Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon the weight of characters in a Greek tragedy, the material remains stubbornly uncinematic. The problem the filmmakers face is that this is a talking heads drama.

We may admire the performances and Peter Morgan's writing, but the nagging suspicion remains that we are caught in some no man's land between drama and documentary. The language that Frost's team and Nixon's team use is of sporting combat. Their metaphors are frequently drawn from boxing. "I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got," Nixon tells his interviewer. At times, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a follow-up to Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, with Frost as the Muhammad Ali-like underdog trying to topple George Foreman. As in the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, Frost takes a pummelling for many rounds while he practises his own version of rope-a-dope tactics – namely failing to ask any provocative questions. Then, as the bout draws toward a close, he suddenly unleashes all his zingers about Watergate and the champ is left reeling and exposed.

At least Howard and his team recreate the late Seventies in inventive style. Their eye for detail even extends to the mushy peas that Frost and his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) eat in the LWT canteen. "I spent yesterday evening watching you interview the Bee Gees," a startled Birt replies when he discovers that Frost wants to tackle Nixon. As he showed playing Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen, Sheen is an extraordinarily skilful actor. Here, his characterisation initially verges on Steve Coogan-like parody as he uses Frost's catchphrases, grins toothsomely and copies that unctuous voice. However, as with his Blair, he gradually draws you in – you forget the mimicry and begin to feel for a character who (the screenplay suggests) has staked his entire career on an interview that could easily go wrong. Frost, it's implied, is only superficial superficially. Nixon's aides expect him to "pitch puffballs" and liken his interviewing style to a "big wet kiss," but the British chatshow host turns out to be the fallen politician's equal when it comes to manipulation and ruthlessness.

There is a surprisingly Gothic feel to the filmmaking. Hans Zimmer's music is brooding and solemn. The cinematography is very dark. At one stage, we may see Hugh Hefner and some Playboy bunnies in the distance, but Hefner's brand of hedonism is little in evidence here. Earlier in his career, Frank Langella played Dracula. There is a hint of Bela Lugosi about him as he welcomes Frost and his team into his sepulchre-like office with all its old photographs of Brezhnev and other foreign leaders.

As a character study, Frost/Nixon is fascinating. The unlikely encounter between two such different protagonists is drawn in subtle and absorbing style. Where the film stutters is in its attempt to stoke up a drama that wasn't necessarily there. By the time Frost got to Nixon, it was already three years since he had stood down as president after the Watergate cover-up. Nixon's political career was over. The film publicists' claim that Frost's interview with him "changed the face of politics" seems a little over-egged.

Ron Howard excels in making big, intelligent Hollywood movies such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Here, he arguably brings too much artillery for what is essentially a two-hander. He has an excellent (and extensive) supporting cast, including Kevin Bacon as Nixon's doggedly loyal aide Jack Brennan and Sam Rockwell as Frost's Nixon-hating research assistant, James Reston Jr. However, their parts – like that of the impressive Rebecca Hall as Frost's girlfriend – are never developed in any depth. The film is at its best when Frost and Nixon are face to face. The rest is a distraction.







London Film Festival runs at BFI Southbank and other venues until 30 October (www.bfi.org.uk/lff, 020-7928 3232)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform