And the World Looks Just the Same, and History Ain't Changed
Frost/Nixon / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | December 5, 2008 | Comments ()
There’s no connective thread for the films of Ron Howard aside from the fact that they were directed by a man whose films offer no connective thread. That’s admittedly a pathetic definition, and a bit of a cheat, but for all of Howard’s mechanical and technical skill as a storyteller, he’s never even hinted at anything that could come close to being called a worldview, or a purpose, or even a loose collection of ideals. How do you reconcile Splash with Ransom? The awful melodramas like Far and Away and Backdraft with beach-read populism like The Da Vinci Code? Howard’s work defies convention in the blandest way possible, as if he is happier doing nothing more than taking other people’s ideas and scripts and coming up with serviceable ways to put them on screen. And it’s the tension between those two ideas — an A-name Hollywood director with no identifying marks — that helps make Frost/Nixon the best film Howard’s ever made, as well as a telling reflection of his skill as a director and the path he’s taking. Written by Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play, Frost/Nixon is an intelligent, brisk, engaging, wonderfully acted film that benefits as much from Howard’s skill with set-ups and pacing as it does his complete inability to take something and make it his own. It’s a good film precisely because of what Howard doesn’t bring to it, or rather, what was already there before he arrived. It’s the kind of deft, interesting, skillfully told tale that could only be directed by a man this invisible.
Opening with a barrage of news clips from the early 1970s, the film quickly sums up the events of the Watergate break-in through the resignation of President Nixon (Frank Langella) in 1974. The script bounces briefly back and forth in time as it shows Nixon’s resignation and the later recollections of his advisers and the men and women who will serve as the story’s main players, and having the actors appear even briefly as older versions of their characters adds a nice touch of verisimilitude as the story slowly circles in for a landing and becomes more linear. On the other side of the world from Washington, British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) is carving out a living hosting a morning show in Australia at the time Nixon leaves office; watching the ceremony, his first spoken thought is that Nixon should have waited until later in the day to leave the White House in order to draw in west coast viewers. Frost is the kind of pathologically self-interested person who only focuses on politics if it can bring him financial gain or assist his career, so when he discovers how huge the ratings were for Nixon’s retreat, he sends a bid to the president’s agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), offering half a million dollars for the chance to interview Nixon. After a series of fits and starts and a few months stewing, Nixon accepts, at which point the story tackles the parallel plots of how Frost will prepare for and execute the interviews and how they affect Nixon and his relationships.
But of course Nixon accepts. It’s not just because he has to for the story to progress; it’s because this is a verifiable thing that happened. Howard has spent more time and effort on historical fiction than anything else in his canon, and by this point there’s no surprise in seeing a Howard film with no surprise in it. But it’s still a completely engaging story in the way Howard dutifully follows Frost around as the interviewer shakes down sponsors, tries to get network funding, and farms out research to his prep team: producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), consultant Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), and writer/activist James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell). It’s Reston who articulates to Frost the importance of the series of interviews they’re trying to pull off when he says he wants to give Nixon the trial he never had, and that “the American people deserve a conviction.” Reston’s passions are worthwhile, but the film isn’t a polemic. Morgan’s screenplay balances the rightful anger of Frost’s investigative team with glimpses of an ailing former president that can only be called humanizing. Morgan, who’s British, doesn’t set out to make Nixon a hero, or even exonerate him, but as a playwright and screenwriter, his political intellect combined with his natural distance from American history make him the perfect tool for examining the aftermath of a sad man’s national mistake as well as the way his enemies never stopped hounding him. There’s a workable duality about Morgan’s picture of Nixon that makes the character pitiable in his fallenness as well as contemptible for the way he got there.
Of course, a lot of that credit also goes to Langella, as well as Sheen, both of who played the same roles when the play premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2006 and then transitioned to Broadway in 2007. The actors completely own their characters, with Sheen a slick mix of opportunist and crusader in a Rex Manning haircut and Langella absolutely riveting as a conniving man who feels his kingdom was taken from him. The two men spar and circle throughout the film’s successive interviews, with Frost angling for some kind of moment of confession from Nixon and the president firmly coached to ramble on and avoid genuine disclosures of fact or emotion.
Howard’s gifts as a technician come into play in smart but subtle ways in these scenes: When the interview segments begin, the camera usually captures bits and pieces of the lights or set dressings around the two men, but eventually the perspective pushes in and cuts seamlessly between two-shots and over the shoulder set-ups that play out as an actual televised segment might. Howard is able to both peel back the artifice inherent in his film and also amp it up to the point where it feels like a solid re-creation of fact. It’s another in a long list of seeming dichotomies that mesh beautifully, turning a historical drama into an honest meditation on the price of power, the cost of fame, and the perils of an imperial presidency run rampant. Though based on fact and using real people, the film never comes across as satirical or abusive, and even though a “number of the events have been fictionalized,” the story is, on an emotional level, undeniably true.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.