If you didn’t get a chance to see Michael Grandage’s celebrated and award-winning production of Peter Morgan’s two-hander, which dramatised one of the most famous interviews in the history of television broadcasting, then Ron Howard’s film adaptation, in which Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their roles as, respectively, popular British broadcaster David Frost and detested ex-president of the US, Richard Nixon, is the next best thing.
It could be argued that you get more for your money with the movie version, given that Howard, working from a screenplay retooled by Morgan, has opened up and expanded upon the original, which was confined to the four interviews sessions recorded between Frost and Nixon in 1977. The film expands on those encounters by filling in the backstories of the characters – Frost the international media playboy whose ego led to him (almost) biting off more than he could chew, Nixon the disgraced president desperate to put the record (as he saw it) straight and salvage his legacy – and by detailing the build-up to their televised big fight and bringing in the supporting players: Frost’s producer (Matthew MacFadyen), strategist (Oliver Platt) and researcher (Sam Rockwell) and Nixon’s chief of staff (Kevin Bacon) and agent ‘Swifty’ Lazar (Toby Jones).
It’s possible that some of the punch of the more tightly focused play is lost in translation to the screen, but the addition of the new material avoids the pitfall of becoming a stagy film. It also sets the four central face-offs in historical and cultural contexts and, no less importantly for a mainstream Hollywood production, provides many amusing moments, not least Frost arguing with his producer in the LWT canteen. In any event, the performances by Sheen and Langella (who’s being mooted for an Oscar nomination) are as fine as you’d expect them to be, considering they played the parts on stage for two years. And so, in the end it’s the scenes in which they square up to one another in front of the camera, one on the offensive then the other, that really stand out.
General release from Fri 23 Jan.