I watched for the second time this past week Frost/Nixon, a powerful drama from director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan about the infamous television interviews between British talk show host David Frost and disgraced United States President Richard M. Nixon.
I really enjoyed this movie when I first saw it last year. It was brisk, straight forward, and never dull when it very easily could have been. The second time through I can’t say I enjoyed it as much but it was still a damn fine drama that kept me fairly riveted throughout. Ron Howard is a director I’m not often fond of. For me, he’s missed a good deal more than he’s actually hit but this is by far my favorite of his films.
An amazing script by Peter Morgan, adapting his own stage play, buoys an impressive cast with Howard’s lean direction backing it every step of the way. Some of the best decisions Howard does with the film is to just stand back and just watch the actors. Let their characters play their roles and really let the audience watch the power play that occurs between the two camps of interviewers and interviewee.
Much of this film works due to the tension and chemistry between the leads and the great, powerful performances they give in their respective roles. Frank Langella as Richard Nixon is a powerhouse. Here he is playing a character that has been studied and scrutinized and performed repeatedly over the years and yet Langella seems to find new, interesting avenues to explore. Nixon as a character is such an infamous character in history but he is also deeply complex and precious in everything he does. An odd man who holds the presidential office in such high regard though he openly tarnished it during his administration, Langella takes these complete opposites of the man and gives a fully formed character study of a man that can be easily vilified. Langella’s late night phone call to Sheen’s David Frost is a killer of a scene giving a rare, albeit brief, glimpse of a man brought down by his own doing and Langella plays it with such force and subtlety, that it’s an amazing thing to watch. It almost becomes disappointing when you learn later that the scene in question never actually happened. And you wonder if the real Nixon was ever that unguarded with anyone.
And Langella’s Nixon has a perfect nemesis to play off of in Michael Sheen’s overlooked but equally as strong David Frost. While Langella got all the Oscar attention, Sheen delivers a quieter performance of a man that many people would not be too familiar with. A man who seems to consider himself more as a television performer than a journalist, Sheen finds the quiet dignity of a man who finds he is becoming a real journalist within this process. Towards the beginning, Frost is nothing more than a glorified talk show host who just enjoys the spotlight but as the interviews progress he finds himself in deeper waters than he thought. Sheen plays his early scenes with Nixon sweaty with a reserved tightness that loosens as he begins finding out who this man sitting in front of him really is. It’s a great performance and the reason this movie works as well as it does is because of the way these two play off of each other.
It’s a pretty interesting cast from top to bottom with somewhat mixed results. Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell play fellow producers and journalists behind the scenes who seem to be more invested in this interview than Frost himself. They all provide solid support, especially Rockwell as an obnoxious, overbearing anti-Nixon writer looking for a public conviction of Richard Nixon. Rebecca Hall is wasted in a superfluous girlfriend role that seems to be shoehorned in only because there are no other female parts of any size. Kevin Bacon is solid, if a bit minor, as Nixon’s devoted to the end advisor. It’s a strong cast with strong material and everything just clicks and works with this movie.
Of course, the overall theme and message of the movie is about the media. And the power of the media. Especially with the power of television as the ultimate in giving the answers to the public. Of course, the one big flaw of the movie is how in your face this message becomes and how it literally becomes verbalized in so many words. A powerful moment after the last interview in which you see the close up of Nixon’s face and rather than just seeing the nakedness of that close up and the immense power that those cameras hold, Rockwell’s character gets a little voice over when he basically tells the viewer exactly what they should be thinking on that shot. This happens quite a bit in the film due to these little interview segments where they interview the actors playing their characters describing things that can very easily be seen and don’t need to be explicated to death. It also saps away from the reality of the film because we, as the viewer, know that the people being interviewed aren’t those people. They are the actors reading from a script and not genuine interview moments. And there never seems to be any other framing device of a documentary of any kind and it really just pulled me out of the movie. This would’ve been an incredibly stronger film without those interstitials and voiceovers.
I don’t really have too much else to say about the movie. It’s a strong performance movie, that’s for sure. Without Sheen and Langella in their respective roles, sparring it out as good as they do, I’m not sure this movie would’ve worked as nearly as well as it does. Working from a great script that tries to get at the very nature of what power television holds and the even greater power of real journalism in the face of great, powerful people. In the great legacy of Woodward and Bernstein of the time who helped take down Nixon, the interviews show how real informative journalism can get at the real truths. And Howard’s restrained directing approach really works here in allowing these two great actors to showcase what they’ve got. A solid B+ effort, only because of the dragging romantic subplot and the annoying, and easily excisable interview segments that litter the movie.