Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon
Frost/Nixon is one great scene surrounded by a Ron Howard picture. Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on your patience for the director’s trademark incapacity for subtlety or nuance. I have little, but in this case he’s a bit less irritating and obvious than usual. The truth is, he probably lacks the imagination and inventiveness to really ruin Peter Morgan’s simple but effectively dramatic original play. Besides, that one scene is strong enough (it’s the climax of the film and it’s likely to be repeated during the Oscar-cast if Frost/Nixon is nominated) that the movie finally works as entertainment even if it ultimately fails to shed new light on a key chapter in American history.
Centering on BBC TV personality David Frost’s historic 1977 interviews with disgraced US president Richard M. Nixon, the story is broken into several dramatic segments. Frost (Michael Sheen who originated the role on stage) first has to prepare for the interviews and simultaneously raise the money to mount the television broadcast. Then, once the interviews begin, he has to draw the wily, stonewalling Nixon (Frank Langella also reprising his stage role) into an admission of guilt and hopefully get the former president to apologize to the American people. Will Frost give the people what they want (what they really, really want) and save his career or will Nixon simply use the interviews to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the public?
The outcome of the drama is a part of the historic record, but it is slickly mounted and fairly compelling stuff whether or not you already know how it turns out. On the other hand, the opening half dealing with Frost and his preparations for the broadcast aren’t nearly as interesting as the second half. Sheen does a fine job of capturing Frost, but the TV talking head isn’t that fascinating of a character.
Luckily, these early scenes are buoyed somewhat by Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt as two members of the team charged to prepare Frost for his duel with the Nixon. The two have good chemistry, an easy rapport and a knack for the welcome humor they’re asked to deliver. Together they go a long way toward livening up a film that mostly revolves around men in rooms talking.
It should also be noted that Toby Jones turns in an amusing impersonation of literary agent Swifty Lazar, but it’s a tiny role and the character is mainly around to provide a little color.
Less successful are Rebecca Hall and Kevin Bacon. Both are fine actors, but they’re not given much to do. Hall especially is wasted as Frost’s girlfriend Caroline Cushing. She provides a nice alternative to the man-to-man conversations, but like Jones she otherwise feels superfluous. As Nixon aid Jack Brennan meanwhile, Bacon is saddled with the role of an ornery, grown up Boy Scout. He gets to bluster and grumble about liberals as he tries to protect his hero Nixon, but he’s playing a type rather than a person here.
Finally there is Frank Langella. As the most interesting character in the story he’s the key to the film, but for 3/4s of the runtime his performance felt stiff and forced. He has some amusing bits of business as he toys with the people around him, but he doesn’t feel like a fully fleshed character. A little too outsized, it’s a performance that probably worked great on stage. Blown up on the big screen however, Langella is frequently too much. Hunched over and lurking around the shadows like a wounded scorpion that still has one sting left, he holds your attention but he doesn’t feel like a real human being – that is until the story’s all important climax.
For the scene where Frost has Nixon on the ropes and the former president finally (seemingly for the first time) confronts the damage he did to his country, Langella is held almost completely in close-up and for a few fleeting moments he’s transformed into Nixon the confessor. It’s a powerful, cathartic moment and a fully convincing performance that ultimately saves the film and makes it worth seeing. Can one scene make a movie? Sometimes. In this case, yes.
The rest of the film is not bad and Howard is mostly on his best behavior, only occasionally lapsing into the obtuseness that plagues so much of his work. I don’t know if he’s just dense or if he willfully plays to the lowest common denominator in order to enhance his image as a populist filmmaker, but he has a nasty habit of going for the obvious and for over-amping dramatic moments when subtlety and restraint are called for. In the case of Frost/Nixon, he occasionally favors telling the story rather than showing it. Worse still, he tells you a thing and then he shows it to you just in case you didn’t get it. For example, one character remarks how Frost was a master of the TV medium and then Howard cuts directly to a scene showing Frost exercising said mastery. It’s insulting.
There’s also a dubious bit of psychobabble (that’s probably Morgan’s fault) drawing parallels between Frost and Nixon and dramatizing them in a late night phone call that feels made up. It’s all a little too tidy and easy to carry away.
I’m nitpicking now however. For the most part, Howard seems to respect the material and he keeps his baser instincts in check for what amounts to one of his better recent efforts. It’s unfortunate that he’s incapable of elevating the drama into something profound, but sometimes it’s enough to simply entertain. Here Frost/Nixon succeeds.
Frost/Nixon. USA 2008. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan based upon his play. Cinematography by Salvatore Totino. Edited by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill. Music score composed by Hans Zimmer. Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew MacFadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. 2 hours 2 minutes. MPAA rated R for some language. 3 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Dan Hanley, Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon, Hans Zimmer, Kevin Bacon, Matthew MacFayden, Michael Sheen, Mike Hill, Oliver Platt, Peter Morgan, Rebecca Hall, Ron Howard, Salvatore Totino, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones