Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)
It’s really hard for me to get excited about a Ron Howard movie, but I’m a longtime Watergate obsessive with a big fascination over Richard Nixon’s presidency and all related scandals; anything that gets the gap in the tapes and Deep Throat and dirty tricks back in the news is OK with me. Thus, Frost/Nixon, as by-the-book and dispassionate as most of Howard’s films, is sort of like candy in some limited capacity. Can I imagine it mattering much to the public at large the way All the President’s Men came to? No, but as an exercise in imperfect reenactment and quite superb acting, the film works on a pure cinematic level — even if it does seem a little too breezy, Nixon alternately registering as a pathetic, formerly fearsome criminal and a comic relief puppet.
The major problem with Ron Howard as a director isn’t really that he lacks a distinctive sense of style — plenty of good filmmakers have no identifying visual panache to speak of, from James L. Brooks all the way back to W.S. Van Dyke — but that he fails to inject any sense of personality, passion, or irony to the stories he tells. In the same way that Steven Spielberg can make vastly disparate films and seem to care deeply about all of them, Ron Howard can do the same thing — moving from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to A Beautiful Mind or The Da Vinci Code to this — because he doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about anything. He’s also an immensely likable and probably very intelligent guy, which makes it feel wrong and distasteful to pile down on him about something; he’s a technically competent filmmaker who’s made more than one enjoyable film, but he’s close to the most anonymous A-list director Hollywood has ever produced.
So one wonders what on earth would lead him to adapt the celebrated Peter Morgan play Frost/Nixon, a taut drama centering around the famous (and famously well-paid) prodding of the former President, three years after his resignation, by British television personality David Frost, whose great bid for journalistic legitimacy this was. The story is devoted mostly to Frost’s long-running attempts to secure the president and then to acquire funding after a pass from the major networks (on the basis of, pfft, integrity). When you contemplate it seriously though, Howard is an ideal and even subversive choice to bring this to the screen, the freshfaced boy wonder of Happy Days in the Nixon years come back to deliver a postmortem of the period while issuing a veiled critique of television in general, a subject Howard knows at least as well as Frost. In the process he gets to deliver a political firebrand of sorts, obliquely commenting on the Bush era much as Korea-set M*A*S*H commented upon Vietnam. In the end, Howard gets to deliver his own serviceable variation on Good Night, and Good Luck, even if the result hasn’t nearly the wisdom and economy of George Clooney’s film.
Morgan’s play has problems of its own that Howard can’t fix, including the intrinsically silly attachment of earth-bending importance to the Frost interviews, somewhat akin to the way The King’s Speech inflates George VI’s declaration of war until it somehow seems so pressing a matter that the very delivery of it is depicted as worthy of massive celebration. While it did feature some choice batshit quotations from Nixon (most of which, including the all-time classic “If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” make it to the script) and captured him at a moment of heretofore unseen (publicly) weakness, it’s generally agreed that much of the interview’s heady drama was a calculation on the part of both men. So here we have a sort of Cliff’s Notes of history, retaining studious accuracy primarily in portions that audiences are likely to remember directly (like the dressing of the interview set). The more it gels with real life, the more Frost/Nixon remains a taut political drama; the more it invents and blurs, the less compelling it is.
It’s doubtful that Nixon would have been happy with his likeness in Howard’s film, a cartoonishly blubbering, sad-faced rambler whose self-importance is clearly inflated long after his time has passed. It may be a valid depiction but it also seems played out. On the other hand, David Frost seems a vivid character — and the movie is shockingly critical of him, explicitly attacking his softball questions in the first half of the sit-down and giggling about the frivolity of his talk show host career pre-Nixon throughout. It’s refreshing for the typically pragmatic Howard to twist the knife in someone for being too soft at the center, even if much of the work is done by Morgan. When Frost begins to make Nixon squirm in the last half hour of the movie, it doesn’t feel like much of a climax or a triumph; those who aren’t familiar with the interviews are sure to be twiddling anxiously waiting for some heavy revelation that doesn’t arrive… but this absence of resolution, calling back to Quiz Show and even Zodiac in the frustrating nonfiction film format, may give the film a stronger artistic voice in the final analysis.
Main performers Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost) are consistently excellent, though Sheen’s resemblance to Frost in appearance and mannerism is so uncanny it renders Langella’s less precise Nixon a bit surreal. In the background, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell show up as Frost’s research assistants, Rockwell drifting through the frame with hackneyed revolution rabble which he approaches robotically, with none of the nuance of his better performances. In the film’s most bizarre casting choice, Kevin Bacon portrays Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan, grunting his way through the one-note role like George S. Patton, seemingly there primarily to make a lot of people’s Six Degrees games easier.
Howard’s to be commended for taking many times the risks with Frost/Nixon that he did several years ago with the rather remarkably bland Cinderella Man as far as true-ish stories go, but at certain points the tampering and twiddling goes too far. First there’s the infamous scene in which a drunken Nixon calls Frost at night to growl about snobs and talk about how everything’s a duel; the truth is Nixon said this sort of thing all the time where other people could hear him, and with a historical figure this colorfully weird it shouldn’t be necessary to make shit up, especially when the entire sequence ends in a time-filling shaggy dog revelation wherein Nixon doesn’t remember making the call. There’s both a loss of humanity and of a crucial opportunity with the near-total bypassing of Pat Nixon as a character in the film (excluding the intriguing moment when the interviewing party catches a glimpse of her outside during a tour of the Nixon home), particularly when Frost gets humanized by the presence of a love interest (Caroline Cushing) far less interesting than the former First Lady would be.
Most bothersome, though, is a trick seemingly lifted from Warren Beatty’s Reds — the positioning of talking-head interviews, “witnesses,” alongside the narrative. I thought it was a time-filling gimmick in Beatty’s film, but he at least used actual relevant figures to comment on the story of John Reed. Howard uses his actors, the same ones from the cast, and their purpose is difficult to figure, but Platt, Rockwell, Bacon, and Rebecca Hall are so heightened and actorly in a sense that clashes horribly with the purported “candid” setting that the artificiality of the moment can take you completely out of the movie. And they forget about the notion for a while, but every time it returns it’s a whole new annoyance.
The revelations raised by Frost/Nixon are few, and that seems to be the idea. Rather than an act of living history, it seems designed more than anything as a showcase for its actors, who provide great work in turn. It’s for this reason that one assumes Morgan’s work deserves more to be remembered as a play than a movie. After all, we’ve already got the original interviews if we want to see something truly riveting — and they’re but one tiny piece in the larger and much more fascinating Nixon puzzle.