There are no talking beavers or singing/dancing chihuahuas in this film. Sorry. There are precious few perfect-toothed sports-stars crooning to pimple-free teenage cheerleaders, either. No cartoons. No promotional toy tie-ins or McDonalds Happy Meal ‘Aslan Burger’ with extra ‘Prince Catsupian’ movie-munch experiences.
Frost/Nixon is, in many ways, the anti-Disney. Not because it contains nudity, sex, bad language or violence. It doesn’t. But because it contains ideas, a brilliant script and subtle, nuanced acting. And while it entertains you it is unlikely to make you stupider.
It also features an unlikely plot for an exciting film, but exciting it is. The slightly fictionalised, though based on fact (but not in a ‘my Iranian paedophile stalker husband took my baby while I had cancer’ daytime tv way) story is about some interviews.
‘Woop-de-doo!’ I hear you cry. ‘What a thrill-ride!’ But the reasonable assumption that a film about a political broadcast might be a little dull, if worthy, is wrong. This is a fascinating film, beautifully written and superbly acted. It is funny, clever, engaging and unexpectedly tense. And it all hinges on characters.
There’s the cocky David Frost (played by Michael Sheen, who is oddly starring in another current film as a musclebound werewolf), talkshow host and international playboy, jetting his way around the world, drinking champagne with beautiful women and interviewing celebs. He’s vacuous, charming and funny, but yearning for greatness, rather than mere fame and fortune.
There’s Richard Nixon, at this point in history resigned from Presidential office and reduced to doing humiliating after-dinner speeches, desperate to exonerate himself in the minds of the American people, and with particular views about men’s shoes.
There’s the raft of support characters, from plucky researchers working for Frost, who provide political context and Frost’s very real (if superfluous to plot) girlfriend, to Nixon’s touchingly devoted right-hand man, Jack Brennan, played by Kevin Bacon.
The plot is simple: David Frost, to further his career, invests his fortune in possibly the most famous instance of chequebook journalism ever, securing a series of interviews with Nixon for $600,000, without any guarantee that they will ever be aired. His fortune and career depends on whether he can elicit astounding revelations. Nixon’s reputation rests on preventing that from happening.
With interviews cut like fight-scenes (one has, at first, the feeling of watching the hero being beaten up by the bad guy), journalistic research done in Grishamesque ‘we just need to find the fact that will nail him’ style and loads of great one-liners and perfectly observed Frostisms and Nixontricities, this is an infinitely enjoyable film to watch. But it is much more than that.
Skilfully avoiding the pitfalls of either tarring the former President as an evil bully or painting him as a misunderstood hero, Frost/Nixon portrays him as conflicted, impressively intelligent, shy and needy. You are never in any doubt as to his guilt, but, as with Myra Hindley in writer Peter Morgan’s 2006 drama, about Lord Longford, you are willing to see him find redemption.
Historically this functions as a kind of sequel to All The President’s Men, the film about the journalists who broke the Watergate scandal. But while that film eulogised the craft of journalism and its power to do good, this film acknowledges the power of publicity and celebrity when used in conjunction with good journalism.
No, this is not a Disney film and it wasn’t marketed by the ‘faith and family’ division of a distribution house, patronisingly playing on our reputation, as Christians for being stupid enough to judge films by what they don’t contain, but it is well worth Christians going to see it. Not because it says anything specific about our faith, but because it says important things about our world and says them well.