Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon is receiving rave reviews, has been nominated as Best Drama at the Golden Globes and could possibly be an Oscar contender. Needless to say, expectations were high. Unfortunately, as has been the story over the course of 2008, the movie, about the interviews between TV personality David Frost and disgraced former President Richard Nixon, doesn't quite meet them.
Frost/Nixon is a pretty good movie, but a few modifications to the execution could have made this one much more than just a play adaptation. Peter Morgan adapted his own play into a screenplay, and this may be the problem. Morgan, an accomplished writer responsible for such quality films as The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, fell into that old trap of what works in a stage production may not work in the movies. While the interviews between Frost and Nixon are portrayed with conviction, the rest of the movie isn't particularly memorable.
While the crux of the story revolves around the actual interviews, Howard and Morgan spend a fair amount of time looking at the lead-up to the interviews, the research that went into them, Frost's naivety toward how strong of an opponent Nixon would be, and his struggles to secure a television deal. Unfortunately, none of these other elements are particularly well developed or interesting, leaving the film to rely almost entirely on the power of its last 20 minutes or so.
Thankfully, those last 20 minutes are pretty damn good. Howard dives into the heart of the interviews with gusto, and the performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are superb. Their many exchanges, particularly the one near the end, are impressive and award-worthy. Sheen turns in his best performance to date, and Langella will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar. Their performances are enhanced by Howard's ability to capture the actors' subtle expressions, especially Langella who embraces his Nixon character so wholeheartedly.
Still, the rest of the movie doesn't amaze... it just is. The movie looks nice and keeps you engaged, but most of the time it doesn't feel like an award-winner. Howard and Morgan suggest that Frost's career is on the line and that there is the possibility that the interviews will never see the light of day, yet I never felt the desperation of Frost or the anxiety of the other supporting characters. I still don't understand how the interviews were aired exactly. I would have liked to have more insight into the business operations - and the research involved. Both Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt are wasted in their respective roles, and I still don't get what Matthew Macfadyen's character did throughout the course of the movie. Kevin Bacon also seems underused as a key player on Nixon's staff.
What really doesn't work is Howard's decision to treat the film, at random times, like a documentary. The various characters in the film talk to the camera in hindsight, docu-style interviews to explain what is happening and provide narrative; I've never liked this approach and never will. It's a cheap convention, presumably taken from the stage play, that is used to say what's going on without showing us - which is what a movie is supposed to do. Howard practically killed the movie for me with this tactic.
Frankly, Frost/Nixon would have been better as a three-hour epic directed by Michael Mann or something of the like. I would have dug my nails into the stuff that brought the Frost/Nixon interviews to light and truly develop the characters and stories that went into making everything happen. I would have also pitted Frost's team against Nixon's team and show their preparation efforts to debunk Frost. More than anything else, I would have made us feel the pain and suspense that the Frost team endured leading up to the interviews. As such, Frost/Nixon is just a very good play adaptation, but nothing more.
Despite my complaints, Frost/Nixon is a compelling, well-acted teleplay. But it is limited by what it is, and can never be the amazing picture that such a story has the ability to be. Recommended, but don't listen to the fabricated buzz surrounding the picture.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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