It's handy that a slew of Oscar contenders invariably come out around the holidays—and handier still that these films generally lend themselves to just the sort of family bonding the holidays require. Frost/Nixon is tailor-made for viewing with Dad or Grandpa, who will no doubt appreciate Ron Howard's cinematic adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play.
As with many dramatizations of events whose outcome is known, Frost/Nixon's version of the 1977 televised interviews between Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) is interesting more for its window on a bygone era than for any inherent dramatic conflict. This didn't stop playwright Morgan from formulating the narrative as a high-stakes battle, a titanic clash between ousted President Richard Nixon, determined to restore the legacy of his presidency after Watergate, and British talk show host David Frost, who is equally determined to extract an on-air confession from Nixon.
Howard's adaptation is grounded in Frank Langella's Nixon. Langella endows Nixon with an awkward charm that's constantly undercut by a coarse, striving vulgarity, in a performance that delicately but insistently raises the question: How much pity can one feel for a man who ultimately betrayed the public's trust?
It's a compelling theme, more so than the film's "Will he talk or won't he?" plot mechanism. Frost/Nixon is ultimately most successful in its humanization of Nixon, fleshing out the "I am not a crook" caricature that, for many of us, is our only understanding of our 37th president. It's important, though, not to mistake fiction for fact: Playwright Morgan has stated that he took liberties with the historical record in order to create a compelling narrative. As a historical fiction, then, Frost/Nixon contributes much to an empathetic understanding of history, if not to a factual one.