I was wondering how it was going to be possible to make a two hour film about a series of television interviews, especially when the interviews in question were conducted by as bland an interviewer as David Frost, one of the first celebrities to have achieved that status simply by dint of being on television. But then, the interviews were with the most controversial of recent American presidents, and were a seminal broadcast back in 1976. With America still reeling from the Watergate affair that finished off the paranoid 37th. president, the Frost interviews were the first opportunity for Nixon to put his side of the story. At the same time, Frost needed a coup to regain his recently lost US market. Developed from the stage play which also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as the two protagonists, the film turned out to be remarkably gripping.
Although perhaps not quite the "electric piece of cinema" advertised on the billboards, there is no doubt that the film managed to sustain a level of tension about the outcome of the interviews that I would not have thought possible. These were more than interviews. They were a battle between two utterly different men seeking to regain their reputations - to get back their place in the sun, as Nixon puts it to Frost in one scene. The pacing and political tension of the film owed much to the gradual realisation by Frost that he was being out-manouevred by the ever wily Nixon, and that the vast sums of money he had sunk into this come-back project were looking as lost as the proverbial sheep. And Frost's own apparent lack of political conviction merely adds to his error, as his US researchers hold to an anti-Nixon passion that he simply doesn't get. As the interviews unfold , and Frost fails to get in a killer blow, the whole project looks doomed to disaster, while Nixon appears ready to triumph.
It is certainly a skill of the film-makers that they have made this potentially mundane material so gripping. The portrayals of Nixon (Langella) and Frost (Sheen) in particular were brilliant. Sheen seems to be cornering the market on superficial, insubstantial figures with broad smiles and camera ready expressions, having played Tony Blair a couple of times, and he had Frost down to a T. A man whose whole existence was focused around television exposure, regardless of quality or purpose. Langella, meanwhile, captured the complex, paranoid, brooding Nixon superbly. Never was Enoch Powell's dictum that all political careers end in failure clearer than when Langella's Nixon, having finally been bested by Frost's questions on Watergate, just looked away from the camera, his eyes full of the knowledge of his failure.
Nixon has long fascinated me, ever since I read his dramatic memoirs as a sixth former. I have often wondered why, for all his failings, I wanted to keep rooting for him. Watching the film, I realised that it was simply the traditional sense of sympathy for the underdog. For that was actually what Nixon always was, and he knew it - knew it so clearly, and with such ferocious passion, that the knowledge ultimately destroyed him.