The British TV personality David Frost, the celebrity interviewer, variety-show host and light satirist, achieved a media coup when, in 1977, he conducted an extended series of interviews with the disgraced President Nixon. In the years since his resignation, Nixon had retired into a kind of passive-aggressive silence over his culpability in the Watergate scandal. The occasion of the interviews gave Nixon a p.r. opportunity to re-connect with the American public, to tout his achievements and save face over Watergate. Nixon’s roundabout show of contrition that culminated the interviews was the closest he ever got not only to conceding his involvement in Watergate but to apologizing for it.
Peter Morgan deftly adapts his play for the screen, so much so that Frost/Nixon feels at home in the cinematic medium, as if it belonged there all along. That’s high praise for a writer who deliberately wanted to make his play as resistant to screen adaptation as possible. Morgan’s screenplay is a model of pacing and scene craft conjoined with character development.
One thing is clear: Frank Langella is masterful as Nixon, towering above all else in the film. Langella’s performance goes beyond imitation to scour up the turmoil inside the heart of an embittered, conflicted man. Langella’s Nixon is a tragic figure, proud, intelligent, but undone by forces he can’t control — his paranoia and his generally unlikeable temperament. Langella conjures all of this up in an astronishing portrait, one that’s almost as poignant as his work in 2007’s superb Starting Out in the Evening in which he played a has-been novelist trying to re-charge his career. Langella didn’t get Oscar recognition for Starting Out in the Evening, but the Academy would be hard-pressed to ignore him this time. And while Langella deserves all accolades, on balance Frost/Nixon is a rather tepid, typically tasteful and polished Hollywood drama.
Director Ron Howard keeps his themes broad and palatable. Not surprisingly, his execution isn’t incisive or daring, so much as professional, hitting every note in the screenplay as he crafts, in essence, an old-fashioned David-and-Goliath story: David Frost, a TV showman, is a man out of his depth when he proposes to go head-to-head with the bulldog politico Nixon, much to the consternation of network TV execs who expect a ratings disaster. Frost foots the bill for the interviews on his own, including Nixon’s up-front fees, banking that a major network will buy broadcast rights down the road.
It’s a high-wire act for Frost who, as played by Sheen, is naive and fatuous about American politics. He hires a pair of American researcher/consultants, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), both of whom want to take Nixon to task on Watergate. Their venom towards Nixon is soon equalled only by their disdain for Frost when the President wipes the floor with him in the first several rounds of the interviews. Nixon dominates the conversations, steering away from troublesome topics like Vietnam into sentimental anecdotes that makes him seem like the nation’s doting uncle.
The boxing metaphors are loud and up-front as Frost takes a beating during these early sessions, investors back out, and Frost and his partners are scrambling to take control of the dialogue. An extended research montage ahead of the defining Watergate interiew is the cerebral equivalent of Rocky doing one-handed push-ups or hauling logs up a snow-covered hillside.
Frost/Nixon is a well-behaved bit of political vitriol, and not really as biting as it thinks it is. Aside from Langella and the always-enjoyable Kevin Bacon, playing Nixon’s advisor Jack Brennan, everyone runs through their paces agreeably. And it’s not that Sheen (who’s essentially re-creating his stage role), Rockwell or Platt are mediocre actors, it’s just that neither the script nor Howard provide them much in the way of subtext or shadings to sink their teeth into.
There are couple of reasons why Frost/Nixon fails to raise the temperature: One is that Ron Howard is an unchallenging filmmaker — he is an exceptionally competent craftsman, but with no particularly deep, against-the-grain personal philosophy or point-of-view. He’s an optimistic, fun-loving storyteller in the grand Hollywood tradition, and that may work for Night Shift (his best film), Cocoon or Splash, but it doesn’t do much for more internally complex stories like A Beautiful Mind (his worst film).
Frost/Nixon acquits itself through Langella’s performance and Morgan’s tight script, but Howard fails to give the material a pointed spin. And that brings up the story’s other great flaw: It has no immediacy. The film is not about an event but a conversation about an event, years after it actually happened, and now presented for an audience three decades hence. The fires tend to cool from such a long distance.
We’ve got two fighters in the ring, one young and naive, the other aging and possibly insane. Frankly, neither one matters 30 years on, when the dust has long settled. And where Howard misses a key opportunity is in making this material more prescient, drawing a parallel between the cultural fallout of Nixon’s denial and arrogance and the situation in America now, in the twilight of a disastrous administration. If he had been an angrier filmmaker, who knows, we might’ve had the film to match, and one worth rooting for.
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, Andy Milder, Matthew Macfadyen
Runtime: 122 min.