A pivotal moment in American politics and culture is given a compact behind-the-scenes dramatization by director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (adapted from stage play), but Howard's prior exercises in audience manipulation (A Beautiful Mind, Far and Away) have perhaps permanently altered his storytelling style. Maybe it all gelled perfectly in the inspirational Apollo 13, but when Frost/Nixon starts to drift towards something edgy, Howard falls back on an indulgence that presumes the audience still might not get the severity of what's at play.
That actually happens early on when a colleague of David Frost, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), brings to his attention Nixon's helicopter farewell – airing at precisely the right moment on TV – and Howard intercuts a slow zoom into Frost's face to let every audience member know a career redemption for both Frost and Birt lies in snagging Nixon for an interview... some day soon.
A second and more contrived scene has Nixon telephoning Frost the night before the final 'no holds barred' taping on Watergate. Nixon puts the conversation on speakerphone, walks to a far window, and has a weird discussion that includes cheeseburgers, being a middle class underdog at school, and giving the public and critics some of the fiery truth they crave.
It's a well-written and acted scene, but the actors' blocking is purely for cinematic value, and it's a bit of a leap to believe seventies phone gear could carry a speakerphone conversation better than the crap sound we get from modern gear. The scene is visually interesting, but there's no way Frost can hear his subject talking calmly when Nixon's projecting towards his villa garden.
The weird irony of Howard's direction, and perhaps the writing, is that it doesn't deliver much bite until the final reel – the same problem Frost's colleagues and critics heaped upon the British talk show host for failing to meet the edgy candor in the project's original pitch to investors. It's also the chief complaint James reston, Jr (Sam Rockwell) levies because like the movie and Howard's direction, there's not much time left in the project to get to the real meat and 'give Nixon the trial he never got.'.
Howard's use of intercutting interview bits with secondary characters reflecting on the historical Frost/Nixon Q&A works and breaks up the film's occasional meandering tone, but the editorial ploy also feels like a leftover from an early script draft. The segments are prominent in the first third, and kind of disappear until the final wrap-up.
The apex of an investigative drama about culture, media and politics still remains Quiz Show, but Frost/Nixon has its own momentum, and the script is balanced with scenes primarily between the two parties seeking salvation from ignominious lives: Frost trapped in Australia doing populist crap after losing his standing in Britain; and Nixon doing a surreal cocktail circuit, offering presidential anecdotes to bored doctors and dentists at dinner engagements.
The performances are fairly strong, including Langella, who almost manages to avoid caricature by portraying Nixon as a man getting a kick from foiling Frost's desires to tackle controversial issues. For Nixon, the interview concept may have been initially appealing for the money (he reportedly earned $600,000 from the project), but he wasn't always able to steal time and drone on, and it's that combative dynamic that's the film's strongest asset. Michael Sheen captures Frost's dilemma in being a 'performer' in search of some cultural importance, and it's clear even without the late night speakerphone scene that the two men knew the tapings had the potential to change their lives.
Althought nominated for 5 Oscars, Frost/Nixon isn't really the edgy drama one expects from Universal's catchy trailer campaign, but in terms of an engaging and sometimes wry chronicle of a potent TV and political event, it mostly hits the mark, and for those wanting the drama from the original tapings, the Watergate segment is already available on DVD, with the entire series also slated for a boxed set release.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan