“If the president does something, that means it isn’t illegal.”
It’s Richard Milhouse Nixon talking, of course, from the magnificent new film Frost/Nixon. But it’s pretty much the attitude of the current US administration too – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others, all of whom are guilty of war crimes and other criminal transgressions, habitually ignore subpoenas (an arrestable offence for mere mortals), have routinely lied to congress, the house of representatives and the American people in general, faked or shredded key documents, taken and given bribes, and managed to escape criminal or even impeachment proceedings (thanks to the gutless Nancy Pelosi) – all of which make Nixon’s wire-tapping, botched burglary and subsequent cover-up look like the equivalent of Al Capone being done for tax evasion. Firmly rooted in the ’70s, the film is surprisingly, supremely relevant today – not least because America was mired in an unwinnable, increasingly unpopular war, with a second-term President who considered himself above the law. Sound familiar?
Frost/Nixon is, of course, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play, although the word ‘adaptation’ seems inadequate in this case. In every respect, the film towers above its source material: it’s less an adaptation than a fully-fledged, expansive and highly imaginative reinvention. It makes the play look like a read-through. I was lucky enough to see Frost/Nixon at the Donmar, and found it rather slight, even inconsequential, enjoyable chiefly for Frank Langella’s extraordinarily accomplished turn as Tricky Dick. But stage plays generally lack close-ups – an all-important part of Frost’s ultimate ensnaring of the disgraced former President – and it is only on the big screen that Langella’s achievement can truly be measured. His towering performance makes Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon, in Oliver Stone’s eponymous 1995 film, look like the work not of an actor, but an impressionist. Langella has the voice, the hunch, the physical movements down to a tee, but that’s the least of it: Langella inhabits the role, as surely as Bruno Ganz captured Adolf Hitler in the excellent German film Downfall. But Langella, an instant front-runner for the next Best Actor Oscar, has some on-screen competition: although Michael Sheen tends to look more like Tony Blair than David Frost, an unfortunate legacy of his excellent turn as the disgraced former Prime Minister in both The Deal and The Queen, there is excellent, low-key support from Matthew MacFadyen as Frost’s producer John Burt, and an enjoyable turn by Toby Jones as Nixon’s agent, the legendary Irving “Swifty” Lazar.
As an acting ensemble, it’s a treat – not least, perhaps, because, as with The Queen (the work of the same scriptwriter, Peter Morgan), we are familiar with the real-life figures being portrayed. But Frost/Nixon is also a director’s film, and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard deserves much of the credit for the film’s transcendence of its source text. Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and even the underrated Cinderella Man proved that he can make compelling films out of true-life events, not to mention wring terrific performances from actors in his charge. Armed with Peter Morgan’s exceptional adaptation of his own play, Howard elevates Frost/Nixon from a footnote in the annals of television history to a significant moment in American history: Nixon’s admission of wrongdoing, both criminal and moral. Morgan’s conceit is that, having escaped criminal trial – largely thinks to his successor Gerald Ford’s official pardon – Dirty Dick felt compelled to come clean to the American people. How a playboy TV presenter came to be his father confessor is one of the many intriguing aspects of this richly satisfying film, which turns a mere television interview into the intellectual equivalent of Ali versus Foreman.
As highbrow entertainment, it’s a knockout. And when it comes to the Oscars, it’s bound to be a contender.