Universal // 2008 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // April 21st, 2009
David Frost: "Are you really saying the president can do something
Richard Nixon: "I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal! "
Frost/Nixon represents something of a departure for director Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code). Based on the play written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), who also wrote the screenplay, it's a dialogue-heavy historical drama with the tension coming from a mental showdown between the two protagonists rather than any overt action or mystery; the only "action" scene in the whole film occurs when a light bulb explodes. It's an unusual experiment and Howard has enough experience and skill to deliver a solid film. Unfortunately, for some reason he also lacks the full confidence in the film's story and relies far too much on standard Screenwriting 101 tricks. This ultimately makes Frost/Nixon, for all of its strengths, a rather unsatisfying film.
In 1977, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, Eddie) is the disgraced former president of the United States, who, having resigned over the Watergate scandal, is desperate for a comeback. David Frost (Michael Sheen, Underworld) is a playboy jet-setting British TV talk-show host who is looking for ratings and respectability. When Frost hits upon the idea of interviewing Nixon about his resignation and attempts at resurrecting his political career, he embarks on an extremely difficult odyssey. Struggling to land financial backing for his interview, he squabbles with his producer John Birt (Matthew MacFayden, Pride and Prejudice) and researchers Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt, Simon Birch) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) while butting heads with fiercely loyal and protective Nixon Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon, Footloose). Frost must find a way to earn credibility as a journalist while facing off against Nixon, who despite (or maybe because) of his ignominious downfall remains a fearsome intellectual opponent hungry for respect.
It's possible to view Frost/Nixon as the logical follow-up to Oliver Stone's Nixon. Stone's 1995 biopic covered Nixon's rise to power and disgrace of Watergate, but ended with his 1974 resignation. Frost/Nixon continues the story with Nixon's attempts to redeem himself while also seeking to return to his full glory. This side of Nixon's life has rarely been explored, certainly not in film or even in print. Most Nixon biographies pretty much end with Watergate and resignation and gloss over the last twenty years of Nixon's life. One exception, Robert Sam Anson's excellent 1985 book Exile, is virtually the only real examination of Nixon's life in exile after abdication. In this regard, it's hard to fault Frost/Nixon as run-of-the-mill filmmaking. This is an interesting story and the film does a respectable job of telling it. The performances range from acceptable to outstanding, the writing emphasizes dialogue and characterization over sentimentality and sensationalism, and the direction is crisp without being excessively flashy.
All of this makes Frost/Nixon a very good movie. It does not, however, make it a great one. There is a lot to admire in Howard and Morgan's approach, but in making this film, they chose to make some decisions that wind up undercutting the very point they're trying to make. Frost/Nixon is smart enough to avoid superfluous subplots or excessively histrionic acting, so it's a mystery that it isn't smart enough to avoid falling into a couple of dramatic traps that make it come off as manipulative.
The first mistake Howard and Morgan made is in expanding the "interviews" given by the supporting characters (never Frost or Nixon) that are filmed in a pseudo-documentary style and are meant to fill in details and emotional depth. This proves to be a mistake. For one thing, the whole pseudo-documentary idea is deeply clichéd, so that viewers who are getting caught up in the story will be jolted out of it to indulge in an idea that comes off as uninspired. Even worse is that these segments add nothing to the film at all. The characters either repeat the same sentiments they're expressing onscreen or they add irrelevant information that adds nothing to the film. Rather than allowing viewers to form their own opinions about the unfolding story, these segments actually tell them what to feel and see. After a while, these segments start to seem slightly insulting to the audience's intelligence. For a film that Howard says he conceived as a "thinking-man's thriller," that's a huge failing.
This leads to an even bigger mistake. In mapping out the story, Howard explains in the DVD commentary that he and Morgan patterned Frost/Nixon, curiously enough, as a sports movie. The setup for the interview is designed as the training sequence, the scenes with the beginning of the interview are the early rounds, and the final Watergate interview is the final match. It's a structure that deliberately calls attention to itself early on. As Frost attempts to set up the interview, there are several scenes that emphasize the idea that he's far out of his league with Nixon, who, for all his flaws, is fiercely intelligent and cunning. There's a scene in which Brennan comforts Nixon about the upcoming interview by dismissing Frost as a lightweight and a dilettante. Similarly, while Birt, Zelnick, and Reston dig through documents, records, and files in preparation for the interview, Frost wanders in and out, attending movie premieres, taking business meetings, and relaxing with his girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). So naturally, it's predictable that the early interviews go badly for Frost as Nixon steamrollers him and delivers endless pronouncements that make him appear statesmanlike. It's just as predictable when, just before Frost's last interview session with Nixon, he finally decides to bear down, stay up all night doing research, and take up on Reston's earlier offer to help him. Consequently, the climactic final interview, in which Frost successfully extracts some revealing admissions from Nixon regarding Watergate, lacks the emotional punch that it should have because it's been telegraphed well in advance. Of course Frost is going to win in the end -- the film has been building up to it. This is a structure that has been artificially imposed on the material: Anson devotes a chapter to the real Frost/Nixon interviews in Exile and he describes how in the real interviews, Frost and Nixon butted heads far more frequently than the film shows and that Frost's initial strategy was to let Nixon become comfortable enough to loosen his inhibitions. That would have made a far stronger film and would have inserted some much-needed ambiguity about whether Nixon is toying with Frost or whether it's Frost who's really toying with Nixon. Instead this rather banal Hollywood structure diminishes the film's impact and makes it much less compelling than it should have been.
Technically, the DVD is good. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is decent, with little grain or murk. The film isn't much about sparkling visuals but the transfer does get the job done. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is rather superfluous since the film is so dialogue-heavy that neither the surrounds nor subwoofer are ever really used. It's a good mix, although Nixon's mumbling does get a little hard to understand once or twice.
The extras are also a satisfactory mix, though not overwhelming. The biggest is the audio commentary by Howard which is a bit peculiar. Though he has plenty to say about how he prepared and shot the film, he rarely ever remarks on what is actually happening onscreen. This gives the commentary a strangely detached quality. There is also a smattering of deleted scenes (22:26), all of which were taken from scenes prior to the interview. It's therefore easy to see why they were deleted, since they slow down the film's pacing just as the audience is eager to get to the main event. Finally, the disc comes with three featurettes: "The Making of Frost/Nixon" (22:57), "The Real Interview" (7:29), and "The Nixon Library" (6:23). "The Nixon Library" is little more than a travelogue for the Nixon Presidential Library in California and isn't really interesting, but the other two do go into some detail about the conception and production of the film. They're not as vacuous as the usual EPK fluff included on DVDs, although "The Real Interview," which intersperses clips from the real Frost/Nixon interviews in between excerpts from the film, should have been much longer.
Frost/Nixon's failure's are all the more galling because there really is a lot of merit in the film. For one thing, the performances are almost all stellar. Langella, of course, has the most important role and it would have been enough to simply get by on doing a simple Nixon impression. What he does, however, is far more extraordinary. He doesn't really capture Nixon's look and his voice isn't that similar either. Instead, he uses his body language to express the peculiar mixture of ambition and intellect that made Nixon so publicly magnetic but also personally awkward. For his part, Sheen is able to portray Frost's optimistic and unflappable personality that only slips a few times as it seems that he might not emerge from these interviews with his career intact. Of the supporting cast, Bacon gives the best performance, conveying Brennan's fierce loyalty to Nixon while also giving him a note of vulnerability when he glimpses flashes of Nixon's dark side. The only weak links are Hall, who isn't really given much to do, and Rockwell, whose depiction of Reston as the walking stereotype of "humorless left-wing intellectual" becomes rather tiresome after a while. Nonetheless, these are minor failings in an otherwise stellar ensemble cast.
The film also deserves credit for its craftsmanship. Frost/Nixon's story may be unsatisfying but it's told with great lucidity and energy. The film does manage to take an idea that is both complicated and not inherently cinematic -- an intellectual battle of wills -- and makes it compelling. It's easy to understand the challenges that Frost faces, both in doing the interview and in setting up its broadcast; it's likely no other film released recently could make the idea of landing corporate sponsorship an arresting dramatic high point. Similarly, Frost/Nixon is also full of little moments of insight that demonstrate how remarkable it could have been had it had the courage to drop some of its affectations. For instance, in the scene where Frost meets Nixon for the first time, there's a brief moment when Cushing looks out the window of Nixon's home while Nixon plays host to Frost and she notices Nixon's wife Pat (Patty McCormack, The Bad Seed) wandering around in the garden, alone and unattended to. It's a little moment that doesn't call attention to itself but subtly depicts the true state of Nixon's personal relationships. A film that's clever enough to be this understated should have known better than to rely on hackneyed screenwriting conventions that don't do this story justice.
Frost/Nixon has plenty that's worthy of respect, and the strength of the performances and some scenes of dialogue make it at least worth a look for anyone interested in smart moviemaking. However, it's not the slam-dunk it should have been. Howard and Morgan have simply not done a good job of camouflaging the Hollywood elements they've grafted onto this story and they end up overshadowing the film's strengths. The viewers who are the most likely to appreciate what Howard and Morgan are trying to do are also the same viewers who will find their dramatic choices deeply intrusive. Frost/Nixon deserves credit for being an above-average film, but no more than that.
Guilty of not having the courage to take its ideas all the way through.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site