Is it me or have performances become extraordinary? In the past few weeks alone, watching Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” Sean Penn in “Milk,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” and the more subdued Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” leave one slack-jawed. The experience is similar to watching not only extreme sports, triathlons, and parkour races, but any sport nowadays. With the bar set so high, it often seems incredible that the human body can achieve these levels of speed and perfection. To the actors’ listed above, add now Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in “Frost/Nixon.” The stupendous acting of the first, more subtle of the second, added to Peter Morgan’s sparkling script based on his own play, makes the film riveting.
Frost/Nixon” tells the story around the interview by Frost of the thirty-seventh president, a highly complex, corrupt, insecure, arrogant, crooked, and smart politician that, with the Watergate scandal, has scarred the psyche of this country so deeply that more than thirty years later all those old enough to remember are stunned into disbelief whenever it is evoked. As played by Frank Langella, who physically shares jowls if nothing else with Nixon portrays to an uncanny degree the doubt, the intermittent self-flagellation, the arrogance. Langella gives us a sense of the man in a more layered and complete portrayal than any so far including Robert Altman’s 1984 “Secret Honor.”
With the Nixon interview, David Frost, in 1974 a minor British talk show host known mainly in Australia, realized the biggest coup of his career. From there, this flighty, superficial, overly ambitious playboy, went on to accolades for his ‘no-holds-barred’ interviews (as Nixon puts it) all the way to knighthood. Michael Sheen who as Tony Blair in The Queen showed us his ability to slip into historical characters’ skin and inhabit them completely here is wily, crushed one minute, up and cocky the next. At first, he doesn’t think through the project, only of the impact on audiences and the enormous boost his career would get from an interview with the discredited president. He doesn’t realize what he’s in for, the amount of preparation, both actual and psychological he needs to talk in depth to Nixon who turns out to be a formidable opponent.
This is not your friendly fireplace chat and Frost early on realizes that Nixon will run circles around him if he doesn’t react. Sports analogies come to mind as the two men spar, cheered on and encouraged each by their own teams. One scene, an interruption while the tapes are being changed, with each man having his trainer whisper in his ear, could have been lifted right out of “Rocky.” At last, Frost, the underdog, suddenly takes over and carries the game to a glorious victory. Still, the president is defeated not by a worthy opponent but by the glimpse he has to take into his own soul. The huge close-ups, common nowadays, give us every deer-in-the-headlight blink, every tremor of lips. In laying down his heavy burden of denial, Nixon is relieved as well as finished. The two hours of “Frost/Nixon” pass in a flash but leave us once again with the sadness at the heavy price in loss of innocence we all paid as a result of Watergate.