Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Ron Howard has an ability to make engaging and entertaining films about fascinating subjects which end up being hollow, forgettable and ultimately short of the mark of being great. Howard is a technically skilled but unimaginative, workman-like filmmaker, although that perhaps does sell short his ability to entertain an audience. He is no fool and certainly no philistine when in the chair, but for me represents a second-rate Spielberg, constantly able to make films wider audiences will enjoy but without that indefinable final part of the puzzle within his personal grasp to create anything truly unforgettable.
That’s not to say however that I haven’t enjoyed the vast majority of his films. Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man are both examples of his working at the top of his game, but also, alongside A Beautiful Mind, are indicative of this way about his work that rips the truly interesting parts of a story away for the sake of wide-appeal entertainment and manipulative emotion. Frost/Nixon falls squarely into the category of his better works, a film which is wildly entertaining and superbly acted which suffers as Howard struggles to engage on any level beyond what is literally on the screen. There is no deeper resonance to Frost/Nixon which there really should be, even if he comes close on occasion.
The film follows the quest by David Frost in the mid-1970s to get an interview with Richard Nixon, the former US president who a couple of years prior resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal. Frost, at the time, was a politically unengaged celebrity talk show host who was highly popular in the UK but struggling to break into the fame game in the US. He saw this interview opportunity as a chance to alter his image and break his celebrity in the US while Nixon, according to what we see in the film, saw the interview as both a chance to present a real image of himself to the American people and the espouse his own views on his actions when in office. Frost has to bring together a team of researchers to form a cutting interview with the president and finds himself out of his depth for the majority of the interviews conducted, finally breaking through in the latter stages when he finds some greater motivation to win the battle, along they way conducting a sort of psychological battle which Nixon wins easily through his years of political training.
What should occur then in the film is a battle between these two contrasting egos, and Howard does manage to play this story quite well. In one of the marquee scenes, Nixon telephones Frost late at night prior to the final interview, screaming at him about his coming from humble beginnings and that the two together are working to prove their worthiness to the elite, and will eventually destroy them. It’s a terrific dramatic scene which builds towards the final portion of the movie which also is high tension and high entertainment. Indeed, if for nothing else, this film should be credited with breaking the curse of the collapsing second half of a film as it gets stronger as it goes with a first half which struggles to engage outside of simply watching real life characters be played with skill.
The acting is relatively strong although Sheen, so good when playing Tony Blair, seems to be playing Tony Blair doing a David Frost impression in this film. Langella gives a titanic performance as Nixon, capturing mannerisms and personality traits without ever falling close to impression, rather inhabiting a complex and difficult character with the same level of aplomb seen from Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s Secret Honor. The rest of the supporting cast is given short-shrift. Sam Rockwell, always excellent, is good as obsessive journalist James Reston Jr while Oliver Platt provides strong support alongside Rockwell as Bob Zelnick. Kevin Bacon though, one of the finest and still underrated actors of his generation, is awful as Jack Brennan, playing him as through he has a quasi-homosexual attraction to Nixon which makes their scenes seem somewhat strange and jilting.
The problem, I’m sorry, is Howard’s direction. He does deliver a very entertaining semi-thriller but the film never reflects the obsessive nature of those hunting the public conviction of Nixon. The political discussion scenes, in which they wisely choose to exclude Frost, reflecting his real life lack of political conviction of knowledge, are never in depth enough to work beyond being basic network television-style discourse, therefore failing to add any intelligence or historical depth where there should be so much. That’s probably more Morgan’s fault, however. Adapting his own script, he doesn’t seem to understand where the drama will be until much later in the film, although this is much better than was seen in the unbelievably-overrated The Queen, a TV-movie at best.
Howard’s problem here is his own ambition. He wants to make this a kind of 1970s-style political thriller, primarily in the mould of something like All the President’s Men. The problem is, All the President’s Men is a masterpiece which can never be imitated with any success, and Frost/Nixon proves the theory. Where that film revelled in the research and understanding of the actions of the man, this revels in the drama of leading up to climactic interview scenes, an amateurish-tactic which Howard falls towards because he is unable to achieve the kind of grace of complex storytelling that Alan Pakula did thirty years ago. You can’t blame Howard for attempting it, but his failure to manage it brings the rest of the film into a harsher light. The verité style he employs at certain points, using handheld cameras and terrible talking head scenes with the characters involved, doesn’t work and you end up wishing he would just stick to what he does best and just make an entertaining if entirely non-challenging film.
I won’t fault the ambition of the move, and this is a worthwhile and fun film to watch, but you can’t help but imagine how this could have turned out in the hands of Spielberg or perhaps, given the verité attempts, Paul Greengrass. Unfortunately, it becomes another film from Ron Howard which strives for greatness, but never manages to achieve it.