Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon
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)

35 Responses to “Review: Frost/Nixon (2008) ***”

  1. Craig, I did see FROST/NIXON on stage and I can testify to Langella’s excellence. But I completely agree with your speculation that on film his performance may have been negatively amplified. The Tony award winning play was a distinguished theatrical experience, but i am not quite sure what to expect from the film (which I will see this week) other than what I have read from your review here and Nick Plowman’s.

    Yes, Howard has no propensity for subtlety or nuance, and that’s why he’s the antithesis of a cinematic artist, and the staple of multiplex filmgoing. But when you say “he’s one his best behavior” you may well be acknowledging in effect that “anybody” with rudimentary skills can helm something like this, where the material is difficult to violate. Right?

    As I say, the proof will be in the pudding for me, but I thank you for this most poetically-written and insightful advance report. For the record, Howard’s best film ever is APOLLO 13.

  2. Incidentally, the significance of that rather middling *** rating has not been lost on me. Most interesting.

  3. If Ron Howard was older, I’d think they invented the term “workmanlike” to fit him. Yeah, he seems to live or die by the material and this material is good enough. For the most part here he seems to stay out of the way.

    For the record, I didn’t even like Apollo 13 (though I don’t remember what my complaint with it was at the time). My favorite Ron Howard movie is the crass comedy Night Shift.

    And a 3-star rating is hard to peg. You can see it as the glass is half full or half empty.

    In this case I think it’s half full. I wasn’t expecting much and I was entertained, plus got one amazing scene. Not bad for a couple hours work.

    I’ll be curious to see how it compares with the original play since I did not see it myself.

  4. Although i did like Apollo 13 quite a bit, there isn’t much else of the director that i do like. A BEAUTIFUL MIND was passable, but overrated.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through A Beautiful Mind.

  6. “The truth is, he probably lacks the imagination and inventiveness to really ruin Peter Morgan’s simple but effectively dramatic original play.”

    I just read the entire review, as this film cannot truly be spoiled for me, having studied the Frost/Nixon affair with moderately studious care. The above sentence speaks volumes: Howard is more or less a blank slate, bringing nothing but, at best, filmmaking competence (and occasional incompetence) to the table. As such, he is not likely to “ruin” something by taking it and “making it his own”–since that means nothing in the hands of a “workmanlike” (good phrase there) and impersonal director.

    Howard’s best film for me? The Missing. Riddled with flaws, but Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett are both appropriately sturdy, and there were flashes of surprising ambition from Howard. I remember leaning forward in my seat in the empty theatre, thinking, “Is he actually going to make a statement? About this genre, about the classic Westerns he’s attempting to emulate, like The Searchers, about something?” The answer was predictably no, but at least he teased me there.

    I truly detest A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, in no small measure because they are such flagrant perversions of history and truth (in each case to sanctify “the hero” and give him a repugnant “villain”)–and for no great purpose, anyway, since Howard wasn’t sacrificing historical accuracy for any impressive artistic statement.

    Anyway, a fabulous review, which is a great wonderment in the face of what appears to be such an unremarkable and middling picture.

  7. K. You mean you weren’t floored by Russell Crowe’s collection of ticks and mannerisms disguised as a performance??

    (remember we were talking about possibly irrational hatreds in the context of Miley Cyrus? Ron Howard is a huge one for me. Seems like a nice guy, I grew up with Opie and Richie Cunningham….but man his filmmaking rubs me the wrong way)

  8. You took my point exactly as intended Alexander.

    The word ‘pedestrian’ also comes to mind.

    With the right stuff, Howard is fine. He probably knows how to get performances out of actors and he can orchestrate things, but he’s not going to push the boundaries.

    In this case it’s a good thing, because the material is kind of entertaining on its own.

  9. Hahaha, Russell Crowe needs to stay away from Howard!

    “but man his filmmaking rubs me the wrong way.”

    Just in case no one got it from my previous post–same here!

    But I know my hatred of Howard isn’t irrational. :)

  10. Yes, yes, Craig, and yes. Pedestrian was my word for Howard for years. I think I wore it down to the bone. After Da Vinci, I considered “cinematic rapist.” Perhaps that’s harsh, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.

  11. I never really understood all the hate for Ron Howard, so I’ll defend him by saying that I love Cinderella Man. I really like Apollo 13. And I enjoy A Beautiful Mind and The Paper. He’s a solid mainstream filmmaker. Craig’s right. He doesn’t push the boundaries (though I do love some of the touches in Cinderella Man). However, he’s a decent enough filmmaker. I thought Frost/Nixon was very good, one of his career’s best. Then again, he’s working with great source material, and since he doesn’t push many boundaries, I wouldn’t expect much less in terms of quality.

  12. Well, I went into FROST/NIXON expecting something as dry as a bone and I unreservedly loved it.

    When I look at most of RON HOWARD’S earlier efforts, he appeared to be heading for the mediocre title fast and furiously. But I thought A BEAUTIFUL MIND and CINDERELLA MAN were wonderful.

    FROST/NIXON shows a certain amount of mastery and willful artistry that I didn’t think he was capable of. Would it be difficult to louse up a screenplay as ingenious as PETER MORGAN’S? For sure.

    But many people have done so over time with material just as showstopping.

    So…love him or loathe him, I think that Mr. Howard is just hitting his stride as a serious filmmaker.

    I think a lot of people are just pissed because they felt that Ron stole Robert Altman’s Oscar.

    Well, I’m likely biased because I’m NOT an Altman aficionado. But he really didn’t need an Oscar to solidify anything. He worked outside of the mainstream and probably had a lot of the contempt for the politics that awards inevitably create.

    In 2001, I wouldn’t have voted for either of them anyway.

    Whatever…

    Oh, and Craig…I dug NIGHT SHIFT too.

  13. “Well, I went into FROST/NIXON expecting something as dry as a bone and I unreservedly loved it. ”

    Ditto.

  14. I really like Apollo 13, Splash, and Parenthood, but personally I think A Beautiful Mind is the second-worst Best Picture winner of the last decade (after a little LA-set race relations movie).

    The ironic thing about A Beautiful Mind is that it illustrates, without meaning to, the very traits of self-deception and mental dissonance that the main character suffers from. It is an insane movie, and not in a good way.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  15. Frost/NIXON would work in large measure even if the distinguished Joel Schumacher directed it.

    Howard’s complicity is being overestimated here.

    I think Sam K. makes some good points.

  16. My favorite Ron Howard moment is when Russell Crowe is entering the ring for the big fight. The crowd stands up, etc. and at the same time we get to listen to the radio announcer describe them standing up, etc. And then explain why they’re standing up. Hahahaha.

  17. I don’t think Ron Howard is a bad guy or a bad filmmaker, just not a very imaginative one. With the right material, he’s just fine, though even in his most acclaimed movies he has a habit of over-obviousness that really just bugs me.

    Combine that hot-button issue with how engorged Oscar seems to get over his stuff and the fact that he violated a beloved part of my childhood and it’s hard for me to go into a Howard picture with an open mind. I tried mightily however and for the most part Frost/Nixon worked for me in the moment.

    As time passed though, it lost some of its luster and the review reflects that.

    In some ways, this is a poor review in that it’s more negative than I really feel about the film and I can’t resist punishing the director for his past sins. Yet I stand by everything I say.

  18. Possibly you’d feel better if you could somehow get all of that out of your system, Craig? For good.

    Maybe you should challenge Ron Howard to a duel. Or something…

  19. Much to my surprise, I ended up seeing this today.

    I tried to disregard the Opieness of it all, but it was a futile effort.

    Every time the film tried to reinforce its own capital-I Importance I wanted to just leave. Somehow every little thing Howard did upset me. Frost vs. Nixon by itself is an interesting story, but Howard is obsessed with convincing the viewer it was one of the most monumental events of an era. So any worthwhile sociopolitical context for his own drama is obliterated, yet again, and yet again, for no purpose I can detect whatsoever.

    That said, Langella is good in his role, but aside from a couple of scenes, his performance in the film is mostly in one gear.

    Yet again, Howard plays loose and fast with the facts solely to trim as many thorns off the bush as he can. Why did I go through with this when I could have just allowed your review to stand as de facto correct? Why’d I have to go and prove it to myself? Oh well.

  20. Let’s face it. Frost/Nixon is a film made for the general public, not aficiondos. Who better to direct than a popular icon-turned-director? The masses like nice. They don’t like to be threatened, too challenged, or taken into places that are too dark.

    With an event like Bush leaving office, Hollywood Zen sort of dictates that we look somewhere else — conveniently backwards — to find “meaning” that has some kind of connection to the present.

    I don’t plan on getting overly excited about this film in either a negative or positive way. Ron Howard is just there, and so are his films, some better than others.

    And Craig, the negativity toward Howard certainly is evident in your review (which, by the way, I feel is well done), but that’s certainly relevant and worth mentioning.

  21. I can see that interest has waned in Frost/Nixon, at least in this thread. Today I got to see F/N. Although my reactions to it are different than yours, Craig, ultimately we come up with about the same overall rating, though on a good day I might give it 3-1/2 stars.

    Though the climactic scene toward the end certainly is the film’s best, I feel that most of the remainder of the film work better than you do, Craig. There are some humorous moments to keep us entertained, and the story line kept me fairly involved.

    However, on the negative side, I dislike the way the Frost character is written and portrayed. David Frost was never as wimpy as this film would suggest. Though he’s not portrayed here as unintelligent, the real Frost never came off as lightweight as he does here. I think that the character was intended to be portrayed this way to provide more dramatic contrast.

    The telephone scene seems to be the invention of the writer. At this point I truly began to dislike the film. Until then I’d been giving Howard & Co. a little slack.

    Langella’s performance played better than I expected. For nearly the entire film, Nixon is seen not as a private man but in a more professional context, so we don’t get much of a glimpse of his more personal side. When we do, the character is not only drunk but part of a conversation contrived largely by the author to drive home points he regards as pithy. Ultimately I enjoyed the humor that Langella gave to the character. And I believe that the final shot of the film, of silhouetted Nixon looking out to the sea, helps frame the performance in a way that makes him a viable contender to win the Oscar.

    The remarks made here about Ron Howard being an unimaginative, pedestrian director certainly have merit. Nevertheless, he has managed to helm a film that features compelling storytelling and that — despite its flaws — will be regarded by many as worthy of a best picture nomination.

  22. Ahhh where to begin. I think I felt more like you did right after I saw the film. This review was written a week later after my opinion on it had cooled quite a bit.

    I agree that Langella was funny, but was Nixon really that funny himself?

    I hated that phone scene too and I tried to find a reference to it being made up but I couldn’t find any.

  23. Nixon was never that funny in public, but I think after his resignation his sardonic side became more apparent.

    I just have the feeling that this film is being rolled out to the American public as something special and that people — specifically, those who don’t see a lot of films in theaters and don’t pay a lot of attention when watching their DVDs — will buy it. They’ll probably regard it as the Great American, Unfancified and Important Movie of the Moment, not the one they enjoy the most but one that’s in the “Oscar quality” group as determined by “experts who determine that stuff.”

  24. It entertains and it feels important and deep (even if it’s not) without making your head hurt….which is right in the Oscar wheelhouse.

    I will say it made me want to go back and watch the original interviews.

  25. I’ve never seen the original interviews, but I bet they’re a lot different than those in the film so as to heighten dramatic conflict.

    I haven’t ready anything about what David Frost thinks of the film, particularly how the film portrays him. But if I were he I wouldn’t be very happy — unless, of course, the film’s popularity boosts sales of the original tapes, in which I believe he retains a financial interest.

  26. In my search to find out how truthful the film was, I read an interview in one of the UK papers with Frost and he said the film took some dramatic license but was mainly accurate. He didn’t address anything specifically though.

    There’s an expose at The Huffington Post supposedly detailing the inaccuracies, but I can’t find it just at the moment…

  27. Specific factoids aside, I feel the general thrust of Frost’s character is off. He may not have been Edward R. Murrow’s younger brother, but he wasn’t so wimpy and was quite intelligent and perceptive. He was like the 1963 version of Jon Stewart though, unlike Stewart, Frost had a reputation for being a bon vivant, which was explained away by his Englishness.

  28. I agree that they exaggerated his character to heighten the drama and turn it into a sort of David (no pun intended) vs. Goliath – though Frost did not acknowledge this. Perhaps his Brit humility keeps him from whining about how he comes off and instead taking satisfaction in how his character turns out.

  29. HAHAHAHA…Oh Craig, I was actually OK with Frost/Nixon but questioning the realism of it all and then you mentioned this
    Huffington Post piece about the reality of the film
    . I found it, read it, and now I kinda hate the movie.

    I thought the movie was a pretty standard Oscar-baiting Hollywood Christmas-time fare and that hey, considering Opie Hackingham was at the reigns, it was actually pretty good. Pretty good in the way that I can sit through it without being truly offended or bored, but not great. And for me to sit through anything by Ron Howard and not inevitably feel as though time is being significantly wasted, well that’s an accomplishment.

    So imagine my surprise, my actual happiness, when Frost/Nixon appeared to be a pedestrian but enjoyable time at the movies, only to later discover that it’s such a distortion of reality that even calling it a dramatization is being deceitful.

    Oh well. It wasn’t going to make my Ten Best List anyway.

  30. I have to admit, it irritates me that my favorite scene in the film is essentially a lie. Nixon only expressed regret for letting the American people down. He never actually apologized or even admitted guilt. I suppose he did as much as could be expected.

    It’s still a good scene, but it feels hollow now. I’m not sure if I’d go with a lower rating or not. As a piece of drama, it still works. As a piece of history….well, people shouldn’t be looking to Ron Howard for history lessons anyway, so I don’t know.

  31. Ron Howard should be sued for multiple cases of historical malpractice. And those related to the boxer Max Baer for slander. Damn, his movies make me mad.

  32. Yeah, the more I think about it the more annoyed I get with Frost/Nixon. It’s one thing to dramatize events that are only know by an eye witness account or second-hand conjecture, another entirely to fabricate events based on something THAT WAS VIDEOTAPED AND BROADCAST WORLDWIDE. It was annoying enough for Oliver Stone to move quotes from W. around to fit his narrative aims, but at least he stuck to the actual quotes themselves.

    Anyway, Frost/Nixon is just going to be another distant memory for me in the future, yet another Ron Howard film to be disappointed by. Can’t believe this guy was in any way related to Arrested Development, one of the best sit-coms in the last ten years.

  33. He is perhaps a better producer than director.

    As was mentioned elsewhere (above?) he’s fine with the right material and my sense is that he mostly stayed true to the play here so maybe the fault is Morgan’s.

  34. I remember there was quite a controversy over the boxing picture and A Beautiful Mind as well.

  35. I suppose Mr Howard has his given audience and his merits to the studios themselves (ticket/DVD sales, Oscar/Globe noms, name value), but I struggle to admit I think he’s more than a competent director. I’m one of those people that can’t even get excited about Apollo 13.

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