Back in 1977, British satirist turned talk show host David Frost managed to secure unprecedented access to former American president Richard Nixon, still a global pariah and national disgrace following his 1974 fall from office after the notorious Watergate scandal. Little-known in the US, despite having managed to get Nixon’s agreement to an almost insane 28-hour interview, stretched over 12 days, Frost had failed to sell the interviews to any television networks, funding the project out of his own money. Even though this was the first time Nixon had granted anyone such an audience, there were no guarantees of any revelations with such an accomplished politician – a man at the forefront of American politics for more than a quarter of a century, ever since he came to high office as Eisenhower’s Vice President in 1950. Nixon, already a national embarrassment, had nothing to gain – but his interviewer had everything to lose.
The end result remains far and away the finest political interview ever conducted – a fascinating insight into the psyche of one of the 20th century’s least-understood world leaders, and a television event that somehow managed to help America come to terms with what had been a disastrous period, the country torn apart by a crisis of self-confidence epitomised by the social conflicts that surrounded the late-60s civil rights movement and opposition to the ultimate failure that was the Vietnam War.
With David Frost now a Knight of the Realm remembered by many as little more than the host of inoffensive celebrity panel show Through The Keyhole, and Nixon both long dead and still reviled, the impact of the Frost/Nixon interviews is easy to underestimate, especially in the UK. So the fact that this film, based on the multiple-award-winning stage play, comes from a British screenwriter-cum-playwright may seem surprising. But Peter Morgan is a man with a brilliant eye for bringing the most out of real-life political drama, and an incredible ability to make politics – which so many of us now find so dull we barely bother voting – deeply engaging on screen.
Be it his 2003 TV dramatisation of the early years of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown relationship The Deal, or the multiple award-winning films The Queen and The Last King of Scotland – the former about the royal family’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the latter an adaptation of a fictionalised account of Uganda under its brutal dictator Idi Amin, Morgan has now coined the market in engaging fact-based political drama. Always intimate in scope, and with a surprisingly subtle ability to humanise figures that we’re unused to regarding as real people, Morgan’s dramas have managed to show the power of a good script in a movie making age in which special effects have all too often taken precedence over plot and characterisation.
Directed by Hollywood darling Ron Howard, this big screen version of Morgan’s wildly successful 2006 stage play is a rare and welcome chance for those of us unable to see the London or New York runs of the show to witness the power of the two central performances – Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. With multiple awards already in the bag for the stage version, this big screen adaptation’s multiple nominations in this film award season is a sure indication that this is one not to be missed. Rarely do we see this kind of subtlety and intelligence in film – and even more rarely do we see it in political interviews, then or now. Unmissable.