I’m going to buck the trend I created with my Multiple Choice Reviews and just do this one (and tomorrow’s for Revolutionary Road) straight-forward. I don’t see the point when every aspect of Frost/Nixon is excellent, from Ron Howard’s direction to Salvatore Totino’s cinematography to Peter Morgan’s stirring screenplay.
Upon being ousted from the presidency, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) becomes a joke of sorts, settling for giving speeches at conferences. Seeing his celebrity diminish and fearing that the people of the country will only remember his connection with the Watergate scandal of 1974, he agrees to an interview with British game show host David Frost. Frost and his crack team of historians try to dig up the dirt for the interview, but basically what Frost/Nixon boils down to is what the title suggests–two men in a room engaged in verbal boxing.
This may be one of Ron Howard’s best achievements as a director. The pacing is great, the period of the 1970s is fully alive, and he oversees every aspect of the direction knowing when and when not to step in. Recently I reviewed Doubt and commented that John Patrick Shanley showed a mistrust in his actors that led to him trying too hard as a director, here Howard lets Morgan’s words and his wonderful ensemble play every moment out. Sometimes all you need to be to achieve great direction is a micro-manager, and that’s what Ron Howard is for Frost/Nixon.
Bold prediction: Peter Morgan will get nominated for and will win Best Adapted Screenplay. He hasn’t just transcribed the Frost/Nixon interviews–he’s added the backstory, layer upon layer of subtle intrigue, motivation for each character, and raw intensity that he’s accomplished without firing one bullet or flexing any muscle. It’s a real achievement.
Predictable prediction: Frank Langella will get nominated for and will win an Oscar for Best Actor…unless it goes to Sean Penn or Mickey Rourke. For an actor his age to take things to another level is fun to watch. And here, Langella is complimented with a stellar cast featuring some talented actors. Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Rockwell are great as Frost’s team of heated liberals who want nothing more than to get an apology out of Tricky Dick. Kevin Bacon plays Nixon’s Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, and although not a “great” actor in any sense, Bacon has always been capable when used correctly in an ensemble (part of the reason there’s a game named after him is because he plays supporting roles in movies with dozens of recognizable actors in them). Michael Sheen (The Queen) injects the right amount of wit, determination, and charm into the role of Frost. He’ll mostly be looked over come awards season, which is too bad, but probably justifiable. Sheen is the heart of this movie, while Langella is the soul. Rebecca Hall and Toby Jones round out the ensemble.
But it’s Langella that steals the show. Sometimes bordering on imitation, Langella overcomes that by injecting Nixon with a biting wit and complete dedication to a highly public figure. He and Sheen have great chemistry together, which they’ve perfected from having played opposite each other on stage for a year (a role that landed Langella the Best Actor Tony). Nixon spends most of the taped interviews talking ad nauseum while Frost looks defeated, but it’s a moment where no words are spoken at all that Langella absolutely nails. In fact, he’s unflinchingly perfect at that moment–a culmination of a status crumbling and the hope for redemption fading, and all Langella has to do to convey this is stare straight ahead.
In many ways Frost/Nixon is the 2008 incarnation of Good Night and Good Luck. Both films dealt with a period in politics that isn’t too dissimilar from the kind of politics we have today. Both films dealt with an entertainer taking on a politician. Both are sublime. Frost/Nixon has the edge in that it’s got more interesting characters and will prove to be re-watchable over and over, thus its message will resonate with another generation of viewers, whereas Good Night and Good Luck, though great, lacks that extra punch that makes it a must-see film.