'Tis the season for Oscar-bait and there is no better way to start it off than with Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. The film is based on the play of the same name by Peter Morgan and stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in roles they originated for Morgan's play, which revolves around the five-part 1977 interview between British talk show host David Frost, and disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Read the reviews after the jump.
It also must be emphasized that even though director Howard had all these first-class elements to work with, "Frost/Nixon" wouldn't have succeeded as well as it does without his experience, his professionalism and his skills. He's successfully opened the play up without pushing anything too hard, and he's deftly avoided the sentimentality that, with the exception of the underrated "The Missing," has often been a quality of his films.
The result is involving, engrossing cinema — more thrilling, in fact, than Howard's "The Da Vinci Code" — filmmaking of a type rarely seen anymore and sorely missed.
What Ron Howard gets, to a degree that's astonishing in a two-hour film, is the density and complexity, as well as the generous entertainment quotient, of Peter Morgan's screenplay. (Mr. Morgan previously wrote "The Queen," in which Michael Sheen played Tony Blair, and "The Last King of Scotland.") "Frost/Nixon" does more than dramatize the high points of the TV interviews. In the frantic run-up to the recorded interviews, and during the early videotape sessions, the film gives us the collateral drama of a talk-show host, accustomed to celebrity chatter, trying desperately to play the role of a serious journalist.
But by the time the Frost-Nixon interviews wound to a close — in real life, the 29 hours of taped footage were edited and aired over five nights — Frost, thanks to some wiliness and a little bit of luck, had coaxed his slippery subject into a tacit admission of guilt in the Watergate scandal. And right there, I've gone ahead and given away the ending to "Frost/Nixon" — but this is a story in which what happens is far less interesting than how it happens. Howard has made a picture for grown-ups, a well-constructed entertainment that neither talks down to its audience nor congratulates it just for showing up. That's particularly refreshing around holiday time, when the studios roll out all their big Oscar-bait pictures, bestowing upon us their most boring, stately and somber works — anything that spells "quality" with a capital "Q," even if genuine craftsmanship is sorely missing.
And devour Mr. Langella does, chomp chomp. Artfully lighted and shot to accentuate the character’s trembling, affronted jowls, his shoulders hunched, face bunched, he creeps along like a spider, alternately retreating into the shadows and pouncing with a smile. That smile should give you nightmares, but Mr. Howard, a competent craftsman who tends to dim the lights in his movies even while brightening their themes (“A Beautiful Mind”), has neither the skill nor the will to draw out a dangerous performance from Mr. Langella, something to make your skin crawl or heart leap. Unlike Oliver Stone, who invested Nixon (a memorable Anthony Hopkins) with Shakespearean heft but refused to sentimentalize him, this is a portrait designed to elicit a sniffy tear or two along with a few statuettes.
Frost/Nixon's emotional climax is, in my view, the script's weakest moment. On the eve of those last two crucial interviews, Nixon makes a drunken late-night phone call to Frost in his hotel room and feeds him the oldest line in the serial-killer-vs.-cop playbook: Deep down, you and me, we're the same. Langella makes the most of this booze-sodden monologue, but its central premise—that Nixon and Frost shared an insecurity about social class that fueled their drive to succeed—seems more British than American: Wasn't Nixon's persecution complex far too vast to be reduced to class anxiety? If our 37th president has proved such an enduring subject for on-screen fictions (see Mark Feeney's 2004 book, Nixon at the Movies), it's precisely because we can never finally fathom his bottomless pathologies. If we did, we wouldn't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
Howard establishes a mounting sense of tension, interspersing interviews with talking-head-style analyses from each camp. Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Kevin Bacon are excellent in these roles.
Morgan seamlessly blends actual interview dialogue and imagined conversations.
The film convincingly conveys how uncomfortable the 37th president was in his own skin.
Happily, director Ron Howard takes a quasi-documentary approach that has the effect of giving Frost more heft on screen — there's news footage, plus behind-the-scenes shots of TV monitors, all conspiring to make it clear that he's better at using this emotionally cool medium than Nixon, especially in the interview's big showdown.
With the transcript as his guide, Morgan explores psychological terrain: how Frost found the chutzpah to land the interviews; how Nixon played cat and mouse with his interlocutor when asked to admit wrongdoing and apologize; how both men of humble beginnings felt stung by the scorn of those born with more privilege; and how both were superb manipulators. But Sheen (who played the very model of a modern British go-getter as Tony Blair in The Queen, also written by Morgan) and Langella (operating at the peak of his powers) are disciplined enough to crop their performances to close-up size. (The sizing echoes the look of the actual interviews.) And Howard is smart to enhance the one-on-ones with journalistic context, weaving archival Watergate-era footage into his fictionalized re-creation.
Mr. Howard and Mr. Morgan have very astutely established Frost’s mercurial personality in advance by having him brazenly pick up Rebecca Hall’s all-too-willing Caroline Cushing on a Concorde flight from Australia to California. Indeed, the impression is given that Mr. Frost habitually makes passes at any lone and attractive woman on his many worldwide flights.
“Frost/Nixon” offers considerable insight into the Nixon mystery, without solving it; the movie is fully absorbing and even, when Nixon falls into a drunken, resentful rage, exciting, but I can’t escape the feeling that it carries about it an aura of momentousness that isn’t warranted by the events. Why is it meant to be so important to us whether David Frost revives his career? Frost and Reston did finally goad Nixon into saying that he let the American people down, and that he believed that “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal,” and they have extracted a considerable amount of copy out of the broadcasts (including two books). But it’s possible that both journalists and playwright have confused a media coup (and a less important one than that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) with a cleansing act that forever chastened the Presidency. It was anything but that: after all, twenty-four years later, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney entered the White House.
Langella and Sheen originated these roles on stage, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing them. Sheen, who was Tony Blair in Morgan's "The Queen," dazzles as the debonair media high-wire artist holding on for dear life when the slippery Nixon ducks all his early-round punches. More presidential than the real president, Langella gives Nixon a stature and poignancy that the man himself rarely displayed: it's a towering, witty performance that reaches its peak in the drunken late-night phone call he makes to Frost, sizing him up as a man, like himself, with a fiercely competitive chip on his shoulder. The scene is Morgan's invention, but it's an illuminating, inspired fiction. Not everything in "Frost/Nixon" happened in real life, but both sides would probably agree it should have.
A totally mesmerizing battle of the wills between the occasionally charming yet wily Nixon and the increasingly desperate Frost. Supporting roles are bolstered by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s ex-military pitbull Chief of Staff and Platt and Rockwell as the crackerjack researchers dying to crucify Nixon.
'Frost/Nixon' opens today in theaters nationwide.