For many, the announcement that Ron Howard would be directing the film version of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play Frost/Nixon caused dismay. It was another example of a Hollywood hack being handed a prestige project with ruination of the work a sorry inevitability. I’ll quickly concede that his overall work the past decade or so can charitably be described as problematic (and unless Benji Button pulls off an Oscar upset in a couple weeks, I will continue to assert that Howard is responsible for the worst Best Picture winner in my lifetime), but Howard is also a skilled craftsman. Not a passionate creator who imposes his sensibility on every work, but an able engineer in the mechanics of filmmaking. This quality has served him well previously on a project that shares some qualities with this one. To me, it actually seemed a good match of director and material. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the project called out for more of an auteur. The resulting film from Howard is respectable, but significantly flawed.
Frost/Nixon begins with the thirty-seventh President of the United States after the fall. He’s retreated to California, sullen over his resignation and trying to reform his reputation while turning a tidy profit. Considering offers for a broadcast interview, Nixon settles on the person submitting the most lucrative proposal, a relatively obscure British television personality named David Frost. The film largely depicts the preparations that went into the program, both the struggle to secure necessary financing and the tactics developed to provoke Nixon into an admission of guilt.
There’s plenty of drama to be found in the duel between these two men with strongly conflicting goals predicated on fervent needs. Frost lusts for the credibility that will come from a groundbreaking interview; Nixon looks to exonerate himself before the American public that twice elected him to the highest office in the land before developing an enduring contempt for him. Unfortunately, the filmmakers lack the conviction to tell this story in an unadorned fashion. In the most grievous mistake, the film is propped up by documentary-style talking head commentary by the various sideline characters. The vast majority of the time, these are fussy intrusions, relaying information that is either already being dramatized adequately or would be better served by being dramatized. Until late in the film, when one of the researchers recruited by Frost discusses the reductive power of television, these segments represent a collective object lesson in the dangers of telling rather than showing.
The film does boast one standout, sensational performance, though. And it’s not the one that earned a Tony in its stage form and followed with an Oscar nomination. Frank Langella is indeed quite good as Richard Nixon, adopting just enough of the man’s famed mannerisms to suggest what is most familiar about the historical figure while concentrating on the deeper insecurities and seething longing that drove him. But Michael Sheen is even better as Frost. As a telling moment in the film contends, Frost is first and foremost a performer. That is a guideline for Sheen’s acting, a clever balance of bravado and charm masking tricky undercurrents of neediness. Sheen’s Frost fairly glistens with cheery regard for his own wily inventiveness. Watching Sheen master these complexities is a true pleasure.
If the film pushes its modern relevancy, it’s correlation between the noxious corruption of Nixon’s White House and the dark presidency just ended a tad too anxiously, there is still a gratifying political potency to it. It gives the film, for all its shortcomings, a worthy reason for being made at this point, in this time.