Based on the acclaimed play by Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon” is intelligent, topical and proficiently made on every technical level. The performances are strong throughout and you can easily see why for awards voters, particularly voters of a certain generation, “Frost/Nixon” is like kudos kibble.
But “Frost/Nixon” is also safe and conventional. It has a running time of comfortably over two hours, but in no aspect of the production to you sense any risks being taken, anybody trying challenge the audience, attempting to break free from by-the-numbers storytelling.
“Frost/Nixon” is very much a Ron Howard film.
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Howard understand archetypes and in David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), he has a pair of characters who are complicated, but only in the most programatic ways imaginable.
Frost is the in-over-his-head underdog, the lightweight who gets into a situation beyond his comprehension, but learns to see the nobility of his purpose only when things are at their most dire.
Nixon is the menacing bully, the villain beyond the reach of the law, but tragic figure who both yearns to unburden himself, while simultaneously believing in the nobility of his purpose.
The movie is building, we all know, to the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews and the results of those interviews are on the public record (though Morgan has changed most of the actual dialogue from the influential telecast), so Howard’s goal can’t be suspense. So he just treats the entire thing like an underdog sports movie, more specifically like a boxing movie, more specifically like the underdog sports movie he already made three years ago, “Cinderella Man.”
So David Frost becomes the plucky Jim Braddock, Richard Nixon becomes the easily demonized Max Baer and Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen split time as our hero’s capable trainers and ringmen. Because there were multiple tapings for the interviews, everything has been conveniently divided into rounds, so you know that even if Frost is behind on the scorecards as the last round approaches, he’s going to score a cinematic knockout of sorts. because there wouldn’t be much catharsis to a movie about an Evil Former President humiliating a Callow British Entertainer.
Since the end is never in doubt, the movie is about the journey and whatever Howard doesn’t crib from “Cinderella Man,” he cribs from Oliver Stone’s “JFK” — little known outsider seeks to get an off-the-books conviction in the greatest crime ever — or from “A Few Good Men.” In fact, the latter film may be the biggest influence, a flatly staged, well-acted, barely opened-up adaptation of a Broadway hit. Sheen is probably a smidge too old to be playing Lt. Daniel Kaffee, but one can hardly doubt that, given the opportunity, Langella would make a stupendous Jessep. Kevin Bacon’s roles in each — Devil’s Advocate both times — can be interchangeable.
Morgan’s script has been so acclaimed in both of its incarnations that I’m hesitant to step back and say that it’s pretty pat stuff. The question of why David Frost was, when all was said and done, the perfect man to score this interview with Richard Nixon is only superficially explored. The fact is that, in all probability, Frost got revelations out of Nixon that no legitimate journalist would have been able to obtain, but I can’t accept that the answer for how he did it was as simple as “Everybody underestimated him.” The script makes mention of the power of television and “the reductive nature of the close-up,” but Howard isn’t interested in exploring the idea that it wasn’t Frost but the nature of the medium that got Nixon in the end. Howard relies on the equally reductive cinematic close-up almost exclusively in the film’s final scenes. Howard either can’t or won’t challenge or expand upon Morgan’s feelings about TV and its power. They’re just words in a script.
A well-executed boxing film shows how the challenger was able to take out the champ. I point you to “When We Were Kings” and its presentation of the rope-a-dope, or to Rocky fighting southpaw. Morgan is too busy worrying about character to tighten the mechanics of the plot into something that could have been more illuminating about both men.
Morgan’s interested in capturing moments, but the script is too much about the illusion of access. There are too many behind-closed-doors conversations and whispered asides where Morgan has to speculate on what was being said. With the lone exception of a late-night phone conversation between the two title characters, the imagined conversations say less that letting those moments pass and allowing the viewer to fill in some gaps.
Many viewers will just go along with “Frost/Nixon” because of how great Sheen and Langella absolutely are.
This is the second time in three years that Sheen is going to serve as un-nominated Oscar bridesmaid to a showy co-star. In “The Queen,” Sheen’s Tony Blair was more sympathetically conflicted than the real man himself, but also more interesting than Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth. In “Frost/Nixon,” he gives what’s absolutely the lead performance in the movie, but his confidence in letting Frank Langella steal every scene is both completely character-appropriate and endlessly interesting to watch. Morgan gives Frost a backstory and motivations, but he’s a passive character in the movie, but Sheen isn’t passive. You sense him holding back and observing everything, even if he doesn’t necessarily know what his next move should be.
Langella, who gave one of the three or four great stage performances I’ve ever witnessed in Strindberg’s “The Father” on Broadway, treats Nixon as Shakespearean, much as Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s biopic. Perhaps because Hopkins knew he’d never actually look or sound like Nixon, he mostly dodged impersonation. Langella makes some effort to emulate Nixon’s cadences and it takes a while to get past it. Langella’s performance isn’t great because he becomes Nixon. It’s great because he captures the idea of a broken man capable of rising to battle because he enjoys the fight. For Nixon, this is a game and Langella masters the wicked gleam in Tricky Dick’s eye.
On the supporting side, Platt, Rockwell and Macfadyen get the funny lines, but Bacon’s was the only performance that really grabbed me, conveying the respect and obvious love that Jack Brennan felt for his boss. There are a few amusing small turns including “The Bad Seed” star Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon and familiar TV character actor Ned Vaughn (you’ll recognize him when you see him) as a secret service agent without a single line of dialogue.
Ideally, “Frost/Nixon” seems like it ought to be a counterpoint to the classic “All the President’s Men.” But while Alan J. Pakula’s drama was very much a movie about process, about how these two low-level reporters set in motion the toppling of the world’s most powerful man, “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t care about the hows or whys, just that these two interesting people sat down and had a conversation.
That seems to be enough for this awards season.