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United States, 2008
Directed By: Ron Howard
Written By: Peter Morgan
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated R some language
Ron Howard’s films ache for Oscars. Sometimes they win (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and sometimes they don’t (Cinderella Man, The Missing), but it’s hard to shake the impression that his recent pictures have each been on their knees, begging for shiny statuettes. Frost/Nixon, detailing David Frost’s infamous ‘77 interviews with the impeached President, is rivaled only by W. in its need to be this season’s Politically Relevant Film (Nixon is like Bush! Get it?), and you can practically see Howard popping into the frame, pointing to his favorite bits, and whispering, “For your consideration!” Such baggage threatens to choke Frost/Nixon to death; the first act does an admirable job of tightening the noose.
All the more surprising, then, when Howard clears the golden cobwebs out of his head and switches on the light. The transformation is subtle and unexpected, but around the 40 minute mark the pretty-please pandering dissipates and you’re (suddenly) watching riveting cinema.
But that first 40 minutes? Painfully miscalculated. To color in the backstory, Howard employs a pseudo-documentary approach, intercutting dramatic scenes with “spontaneous” interviews, allowing him to disguise his penchant for heavy-handedness (albeit poorly). In case you weren’t clear that Big Important Things were afoot, the actors remind you: “Did you know that Big Important Things are afoot?”. Why rely on Frank Langella’s performance alone to convey Nixon’s despondency as he stares out the window when you can have Kevin Bacon (playing Jack Brennan, Nixon’s right-hander) helpfully narrating, “I remember his face, staring out the window…” Thank you, Ron Howard. I hadn’t caught that. Also, please move your tuba away from my ear.
This faux-doc affectation is Howard’s cardinal sin (perhaps the blame for this can be laid at screenwriter Peter Morgan’s feet, who adapts from his own stage play), and one for which he barely makes restitution. But when he pushes the politics (both past and current) to the side and removes the in-your-face interviews; when he boils the picture down to its core conflict – two men drawing rhetorical swords against one another – and ceases to ram the bigger picture down your throat; and when he allows MartinMichael Sheen and Langella’s performances to breathe on their own,Frost/Nixon becomes a thing of beauty.
Langella (Superman Returns) astounds as Nixon, incorporating Tricky Dick’s signature mannerisms into a performance that avoids parody and achieves subtlety. Initially arrogant and self-righteous, Langella’s fallen president gives way to defensiveness, desperation and finally brokenness beneath Frost’s pointed questioning. Martin Sheen (The Queen) does well as the British talk show host-cum-inquisitor, but has less to work with than Langella (Frost’s financial troubles pale next to Nixon’s fierce need for redemption). Both, however, shine in the final face-off over Watergate.
The entire film has been building towards this showdown, and despite his earlier missteps, Howard accomplishes the one thing he needed to: he palpably recreates the pin-dropping tension that must have been felt by the 45 million people who tuned in to watch the original broadcast. As James Reston, Jr. (one of Frost’s investigators, played by Sam Rockwell) puts it, it was “the trial he had never had.” The scene is relentless, cathartic, stunning, but most of all, moving. Despite his failures, watching one man’s legacy dwindle to ash, the good devoured by the bad, is tragic. Langella performs magnificently.
Frost/Nixon is flawed in the way Oscar-bait films invariably are, but Howard nevertheless manages to steer the clunker towards a great story, well acted. It rewards more often than disappoints, and while it won’t be “for your consideration” the way Howard wants it to be, it is worth considering.