Starring: Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt. Directed by Ron Howard.
121 mins
Rating: Rated M (coarse language)

Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon was a big success on the West End stage and later on Broadway. Michael Sheen (so memorable as Tony Blair in the film The Queen, also written by Morgan) won plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic for his performance as TV interviewer David Frost, and Frank Langella won a Tony Award for his portrayal of disgraced US President Richard M. Nixon in the New York production.

Director Ron Howard wisely reunites Sheen and Langella for his film version, which hews closely to the form and style of the play but has the immeasurable advantage of close-ups. In the cat-and-mouse encounter between the playboy interviewer and the cagey politician the cameras are tight on the faces, and the actors really have to perform under that sort of intense scrutiny. They are exceptional and, particularly in the case of Langella, Oscar night has to be looking good.

The excellent script is more than just a selection of the best bits from the long interviews (four, 90-minute telecasts) that drew record ratings for a news programme in the US when they were aired in 1977. The transcripts are factual, but the rest probably belongs in the world of faction as it examines how the interviews came about, the wheeling and dealing process, including Nixon’s fondness for the dollar (he pushed his price up to $600,000), and the behind-the-scenes tensions as the taping sessions were not going as Frost and his television associates had hoped.

According to Morgan, Frost had sold the interviews confident that he would extract from Nixon a “full, no-holds-barred confession” that he had betrayed his office. The crafty President, on the other hand, felt sure he could win any battle of wits with lightweight Frost and use the programs to reinstate himself with the American public. Besides, Frost risked a lot financially in the venture because the American TV networks did not come to the party and he was forced to begin taping began with only 30% of sponsorship backing.

Around these issues Peter Morgan has woven a splendid entertainment with a surprising amount of humour (Nixon is depicted as having a rather mordant wit) and more than a little drama. Both Frost and Nixon recognise the importance of the interviews — Frost to vindicate his skills as an interviewer by getting the ex-President to confess his wrongdoing and Nixon to redeem himself. “The limelight can only shine on one of us,” says Nixon as they prepare to begin the final interview. “And for the other it’ll be the wilderness, with nothing and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head.”

Peripheral characters are very well played too. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are hard-bitten anti-Nixon journalists engaged by Frost as researchers, Kevin Bacon is the President’s chief of staff and minder, Matthew MacFadyen is Frost’s producer, Toby Jones (Truman Capote in Infamous) is Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar, and Rebecca Hall is Caroline Cushing, the attractive young woman who becomes Frost’s girlfriend after he picks her up on a transatlantic plane flight.

The film makes good use of news footage from the archives and even uses some of the actors speaking in character direct to camera to reinforce the documentary feel of a film that brings comparatively recent political history to vibrant life. You won’t need to be a political beast to find it engrossing.

Universal  Out December 26

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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