Ron Howard is celebrating his 50th year in show business, and if you learn anything in that span, it's not to mess with a good thing. In "Frost/Nixon," the veteran director smoothly demonstrates the value of that attitude, taking a silk purse of a project, making it even silkier and producing perhaps the best work of his career in the process.
The silk purse in question is a play with a considerable pedigree. Written by Peter Morgan, best known for the Helen Mirren-starring "The Queen," "Frost/Nixon" had highly successful runs in both London and New York and won the best actor Tony for Frank Langella in the process.
Despite this success, "Frost/Nixon" was not an easy sell in today's adult-phobic film marketplace, even with an Oscar-winning director attached. The production reportedly had one of the tightest budgets and shortest shooting schedules in Howard's last 30 years as a director, and everyone, including Howard, took reduced or deferred fees.
One of the explanations for all this caution is that a film looking behind the scenes at the television interviews that British TV personality David Frost did with former President Richard Nixon in 1977 doesn't sound all that dramatic, now does it?
"Frost/Nixon," however, turns out to be formidably involving, and the reasons start not with expert costars Langella and Michael Sheen or their strong supporting cast or even the skills of Howard, but with the gifts and vision of Morgan, who wrote the screenplay as well as the play.
Credited with not only "The Queen" and its prequel, "The Deal," but also "The Last King of Scotland," Morgan has been especially adept at exploring what he calls "the twilight between historical fact and fiction," a point he emphasizes in an author's note to the drama's printed edition. "It is a play, not a historical document," he writes, "and I have on occasion, perhaps inevitably, been unable to resist using my imagination."
Morgan has conjured up what he described, when talking the project up to Frost himself, as "a sort of intellectual 'Rocky,' " a battle of wits between two of the more unlikely antagonists the television medium has ever brought together.
On one side is Frost (Sheen), a man of imperturbable self-confidence and minimal gravitas who has been referred to by at least one headline writer as "Frosty the Showman." A practiced interviewer and talk show host, he is only minimally discomforted when girlfriend-to-be Caroline Cushing (the always letter-perfect Rebecca Hall) remembers a description of him as having "achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality."
In the other corner is Frost's polar opposite, the least glib man on Earth, the tortured Richard Nixon (Langella), a world-class brooder with a Machiavellian mind who is shown, in "Frost/Nixon's" opening sequences, resigning the presidency in disgrace and leaving Washington for soothing San Clemente in 1974.
What brings these two together three years later is the great equalizers of modern culture: fame and money. Frost, hungry for American-style success and cognizant of the huge ratings numbers that Nixon's resignation earned, dangles so much money that both Nixon and his agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), have to take notice.
Nixon's team, led by former Marine Lt. Col. Jack Brennan (a polished Kevin Bacon), also felt Frost would be a lightweight competitor. Helping to stiffen the talk show host's spine were producer John Birt ("Pride and Prejudice's" Matthew Macfadyen), veteran journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and the zealous James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who thirsted to "give Richard Nixon the trial he never had."
The first half of "Frost/Nixon" covers the buildup to the interviews, including a frantic search for the money to pay the former president, and the second is the battle itself. At first, as Brennan relates in a fine bit about being in the ring with a champion, Frost barely laid a glove on Nixon. But as boxing fans know, you have to go the distance before you can be declared the winner.
Sheen, who portrayed Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen," is excellent, but Langella will deservedly get the lion's share of good notices for this film. His Nixon is not an impersonation but an exceptional performance, a great actor's take on an unnerving character that, especially in an invented scene of a late-night phone call to Frost, rises to remarkable levels of artistry.
It also must be emphasized that even though director Howard had all these first-class elements to work with, "Frost/Nixon" wouldn't have succeeded as well as it does without his experience, his professionalism and his skills. He's successfully opened the play up without pushing anything too hard, and he's deftly avoided the sentimentality that, with the exception of the underrated "The Missing," has often been a quality of his films.
The result is involving, engrossing cinema -- more thrilling, in fact, than Howard's "The Da Vinci Code" -- filmmaking of a type rarely seen anymore and sorely missed.
MPAA rating: R for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In limited release