Frost Nixon

March, 2009, Drama


Among the small group of consistently successful Hollywood actor/producer/ directors, (Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, George Clooney) Ron Howard’s ability to crank out financially profitable films year after year reflects a combination of solid technical skills and shrewd insight into the tastes of the movie-going public. After appearing in over 225 television shows as a child star, he went behind the camera with almost immediate success; in 1984, Splash introduced a young Tom Hanks to the big screen; that triumph was followed by such films as Cocoon (1985), Far and Away (1992) Apollo 13 (1995) A Beautiful Mind (2001) and most recently, The Da Vinci Code. In between these box-office smashes, Howard’s done at least 10 additional movies while producing or co-producing literally scores of segments in some of television’s most popular series, making him, at age 55, something of a one-man cinematic phenomenon. He’s done it again with this slickly-packaged version of the hit play that garnered such praise during its long run on Broadway.

Howard opens up the script of playwright Peter Morgan’s stage production with a surprisingly large supporting cast and just the right number of visual accoutrements to provide context for the story’s recreation of the television interviews British television commentator David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon after the latter’s forced resignation from the presidency. Howard’s cameras provide wonderful images of Frank Langella’s Nixon, sulking in the gilded privacy of his San Clemente retreat, then contrasts them with glimpses of David Frost’s ostentatious lifestyle as a television personality flitting from Australia to England to the U.S. in constant search of sufficient fame and fortune to feed his outsized appetites. 

British actor Michael Sheen, (who played prime minister Tony Blair so effectively opposite Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth in The Queen ) portrays Frost as a pleasantly conniving showman, more interested in ratings than the pursuit of historical fact-gathering; he leaves that more prosaic task to a small team of political experts headed by Sam Rockwell as the hot-tempered academic James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt as the deliciously acerbic Washington insider Bob Zelnick. Sporting a willowy girlfriend from down under to properly accent his Saville Row suits, French cuffed shirts and highly polished Gucci loafers, Sheen delivers a preening showman who initially appears to be in contest that’s way over his head.

Langella, a brilliant actor whose work on Broadway overshadows any number of fine screen performances, (Good Night and Good Luck, Starting Out in the Evening) and scores of appearances on television, doesn’t look a great deal like Nixon, but he portrays the former president with an instantly recognizable reptilian preference for lightening strikes from the shadows when dealing with opponents. More importantly, the taxpayers provided him  with an extensive staff to assist in putting sufficient spin on the more reprehensible aspects of his record while also providing an appreciative audience for his trademark, self-pitying rants . 

As the taping of the 4-part interviews begins in a borrowed home close to Nixon’s seaside retreat, it appears that the audience is about to witness the human version of a battle between snake and mongoose…with the former the odds-on favorite to emerge victorious. With the immediacy that can only be achieved in a live performance on stage, these same actors must have electrified audiences night after night; under Howard’s direction, their performances serve to inform rather than astound. 

Despite the script’s constant references to the historic importance of the interviews and the director’s efforts to stress the “do or die” risks that Frost took financially in producing them, Frost/Nixon reflects perfectly Howard’s limits as a director; there’s certainly professional competence here, good story-telling skills, handsome, presentable images and polished production values…but no real vision. This is a craftsman at work, not an artist. That’s not to fault the result, which succeeds as entertainment even as it makes a cinematic mountain out of an historical molehill; the interviews were successful when they were initially presented, but Nixon delivered no final verdict on his presidency in them and the film’s attempt to suggest that Frost coaxed a confession of previously hidden guilt out of our 37th president just doesn’t square with reality. But Frost did succeed in getting under Nixon’s skin in a manner few others have been able to accomplish and the conniving zest which Langella and Sheen bring to their respective antagonists makes for a lively if predictable verbal contest. Great art it ain’t…but Tricky Dick doesn’t deserve that kind of tribute anyway.

The verdict? Hollywood’s version of history at its box-office savviest.

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