Bottom Line: Sometimes intriguing, but runs long and wears thin on the subject matter.
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Andy Milder, Frank Langella, Kate Jennings Grant, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones
Whenever a historical subject is presented on film, I strongly feel it should exceed beyond textbook information and dare I say explained news reports. We already know about how the Watergate scandal led former President Richard Nixon to resign; I wouldn’t suppose any of us want a more biased story furthering on how he was a criminal. If anything, it’d be best to see a film that genuinely surprises its targeted audience by perhaps portraying him like any other U.S. President, as if he had no reason for being controversial. I want a reason to be entertained, in other words, so tell me something I don’t know. Don’t explain on what I already do know.
At first, it’s subtle. Peter Morgan’s script, a long-winded adaptation of his own play from two years prior, begins not by depicting Richard Nixon (portrayed by Frank Langella) as the man we picture him as, following the Watergate scandal. He’s less outspoken and at this point, the film seems to focus more on David Frost (portrayed by Michael Sheen), the talk-show host who is setting up to interview Nixon on public television in March of 1977, after Nixon’s resignation. In its second act is when the film begins to completely introduce Richard Nixon, when a dramatic account of these interviews begins. Granted, we learn more about Nixon’s personal standpoint on the scandal, on his presidency, on how he has let down his country, etc. Rarely is a move made to change our minds, though, from what we already believe about one of the most controversial men who ever stood in charge of the nation.
I’m not a great fan of Ron Howard’s directorial work. I thoroughly enjoyed 1995’s APOLLO 13, and I would swiftly jump to stating that it is one of my all-time favorite movies. But that’s just one film. Films like HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and A BEAUTIFUL MIND are those I would only leap to defending when it was severely necessary. I would not hesitate, however, to say that the man does know how to assemble a solid cast. Howard has done so in most his films, but I have yet to see an assembly as great as in FROST/NIXON. Just Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are marvelous in their respective performances as Richard Nixon and David Frost. Of the two, Langella excels a bit more, despite the routine presentation of his real-life character. Looking beyond at other impressive names such as Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, and Rebecca Hall, as well as each of their performances, the film seems to be, if nothing else, a showcase of convincing performers. Combined with the grainy and occasionally panning cinematography, we’re taken by the effect of a documentary.
FROST/NIXON is a film that takes itself seriously, perhaps a bit too seriously. It exceeds two hours of screen time to chronicle a tale that could be documented just as effectively in a forty-five-minute television special. There is so much talking going on that we often feel like we’re watching C-SPAN. I have to wonder how much of the interviews were cut out for the purpose of interesting the audience. There was a good amount of extraneous information delivered. At least the interview in which Nixon took twenty-three minutes to respond to a simple question, was truncated down to around five minutes. FROST/NIXON also seems like one of Oliver Stone’s presidential dramatizations. There is a lot of story as well as information given–though if Stone himself had directed, it would have been a more appropriately heavy take on the events–as well as a good amount of depth planted inside the characters–again, it’s not the kind of depth we particularly need. To compare with that director’s similar works, FROST/NIXON is nowhere near as tremendously engaging, well-told, and classic as JFK; but it isn’t nearly as dreadfully lackluster, insulting, and half-baked as W., either. In short, it’s a fine drama.