Posted at 5:48 PM on December 11, 2008
by Euan Kerr
A Ron Howard film based on a Peter Morgan play about a 1970's television interview doesn't inspire confidence, so having been sausage-making in the media business for years, I went into "Frost/Nixon" with low expectations.
Yet I left the theater both entertained and provoked. Howard has produced a piece of cinema about two gladiators who, even dressed in their thousand dollar suits, engage in a brawl which both know only one can survive.
The story behind how celebrity interviewer and popular entertainer David Frost came to sit across from the recently resigned President of the United States is so unbelievable you wouldn't believe it as fiction.
Frost paid a lot of his own money for his interview with Richard Nixon, believing he could sell the resulting shows for huge sums around the world. His staff saw the interview as a chance to hold the trial Nixon never had, but he saw it just as a show which would produce massive numbers. He badly miscalculated American distaste for what was seen as checkbook journalism, and had to spend more time trying to find sponsors than prepare for the interview.
Nixon was still in denial as to what had happened, and he was looking for redemption, as well as a nice check. With his own debating experience, and brilliant mind, he expected to run rings round Frost.
Howard sets up the contest brilliantly, only allowing inklings of each man's flaws to show at first. He also creates a strangely supportive relationship between the two. Both Frost and Nixon recognize how they are both supremely competitive. "The limelight can only shine on one of us," Nixon rumbles at one point. "The wilderness for the other."
Michael Sheen looks far more like the real David Frost than Frank Langella looks like Richard Nixon. Yet the film continues Lanhella becomes Nixon, showing his strengths and his foibles, his triumph and his pain.
Most days broadcast journalism is sausage-making. Sometimes an interview like in "Frost/Nixon" can reveal a diamond.