Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.29.09


Superbly acted, but how faithful?
by Jason Blair

FROST/NIXON: Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan. Cinematography, Salvadore Totino. Music, Hans Zimmer. Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall and Oliver Platt. Universal Pictures, 2008. R. 122 minutes.

From the inspired fantasy of Cocoon to the history-inspired A Beautiful Mind, you can’t accuse director Ron Howard of staying put when it comes to genre. But you can say there is a Ron Howard pattern. And that pattern simply is this: When the times get tough, the tough start crying. I’ll never forget feeling the narrative power of Apollo 13 — arguably his best film, although A Beautiful Mind earned him an Oscar — piddle away after the umpteenth u-turn back into the den of the astronaut’s spouses. Opie, Richie, Mr Howard: Stop polishing my tear ducts. While Howard manages to create precise, even sumptuous films, they tend to be as shallow as a kiddie pool and about as intellectually stimulating. It’s as if deeper waters are more than he can bear. 

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon

All of this is why the prospect of Howard at the helm of Frost/Nixon is both exciting and worrisome. The stage play, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), was tense and combative; it was a partly speculative telling of the interviews President Nixon granted to David Frost, a minor British TV personality, three years after Nixon resigned. The material had the potential to relieve Howard of his maudlin sensibilities, his tendency to emotionally manipulate viewers just as things get dark and dirty. And on the strength of several sensational performances, this is mostly the case with Frost/Nixon the film. (The performances are so good that as journalist James Reston, actor Sam Rockwell — the third option in this top-heavy lineup — steals every scene he’s in.) Using actual news footage, searing close-ups and gentle focusing techniques, Howard pumps Frost/Nixon for maximum drama. The question is whether in pumping too hard, he’s overinflated the importance of actual events.

On the surface, Frost/Nixon is a classic David and Goliath story. In 1977, Frost (played by Michael Sheen) was a callow, weak-kneed playboy, a sort of Robin Leach for the disco set. He was occasionally clever but easily distracted. Watching Nixon (played by Frank Langella) resign via television, he hatched the idea to interview Nixon as means of advancing his career. Nixon, for his part, saw Frost as easy prey. A formidable and menacing but disgraced ex-president, Nixon coaxed $600,000 from Frost, a then-record for a TV interview and proof enough, when it became public, that Frost was a lamb to Nixon’s lion. All of this Frost/Nixon covers effectively, not to mention entertainingly. But the film, like the stage play, is all about the interviews, the great match — recorded in four sessions — during which Nixon bests Frost again and again.

In the film, Nixon is a cutthroat competitor, but he’s also funny, stubborn and keenly observant. Crucially, Langella doesn’t attempt an impersonation; he goes within, with a great sense of mystery and purpose, to reveal a man more credible than any look-alike. But the pathos here is Howard’s; Nixon, in the film, is too gentle and sympathetic. (Sheen, for his part, has been used more effectively; he’s smirky and cagey here.) Nor is Nixon’s participation fully disclosed: Nixon was to receive 20 percent of the interview’s profits, meaning that — and there’s no two ways about this — Nixon and Frost were business partners. But even if you’re willing to overlook this historical infidelity, deliberate revision of the actual interview transcripts is harder to accept. Editing the arrangement of Nixon’s statements is one thing; inventing what Nixon said is another.  

Even at the level of pure entertainment, Frost/Nixon, while often fun, can feel pushy, like it’s trying to build mountains out of sand. At one point during a break from the interviews, someone yells at Frost, “You’re making him look presidential!” I had the same reaction — without the disappointment. With so little actually at stake, it was hard to share their passion.