In his movie about David Frost’s attempt to extract a confession from Richard Nixon that he betrayed the principles of democracy, Ron Howard manages to betray the principles filmmaking.
Perhaps it is appropriate, since the film ends with a eulogy to the power of television. The goal of most movies is to use the camera to achieve an emotional effect in the audience, but once achieved via a powerful close-up of Nixon, this movie instantly follows success with the dissonant shrill of audio feedback in the form of Sam Rockwell describing in tedious detail the effect we have already experienced firsthand. (One is reminded of Eminem’s song over the credits of 8-Mile, whose lyrics awkwardly recap the entire plot of the film just finished.)
The screenwriter, adapting his own stage play, may be excused this indulgence because he is used to making actors describe their emotions to the cheap seats who can’t see their faces, but the director should know better. In this case, Howard evidently followed the filmmaking axiom “show don’t tell” by deciding to “show then tell.”
This self-undermining of the medium occurs early on in the film as well, though it appears to be from mere laziness rather than sabotage. Rebecca Hall’s instantaneous observation that Frost has “sad eyes” so perfectly encapsulates Michael Sheen’s portrayal of the grinning-on-the-outside but crying-on-the-inside Frost that it is too close for comfort. Does the shocked embarrassment on his face belong to Frost’s façade being penetrated or Sheen’s guiding insight into the character being unceremoniously exposed?
But the laziest decision of all is the introduction of all the supporting characters via subtitles accompanying faux-documentary retrospective interviews. The exposition packed into these clips inclines one to be charitable to them as a regrettable but necessary evil–artistically bankrupt though they are as a device of excruciating artificiality. But their utter redundancy as capsules of exposition becomes clear a moment later when Matthew MacFadyen, rushing his delivery as fast as he is through an airport, is forced to declaim a painfully multifaceted assessment of Frost’s precarious career situation-to Frost himself!
Other vestiges of the screenplay’s stage origin also shine through, like Nixon’s Shakespearean soliloquy-not delivered towards the camera, thankfully, but a speakerphone. It’s a tough job to turn a series of interviews into a narrative, so I have no qualms with dramaturgical necessity to invent a non-historical phone call under the auspices of poetic licence. But such a concise divulgence of inner motivation is so typically theatrical it makes the projector reels positively creak like floorboards.
I will always love Ron Howard for his thankless narration of Arrested Development. But no matter how decorated the playwright, the buck stops with the director, and Howard’s failure to veto so many cinematic illiteracies in this screenplay is almost as atrocious as his many nominations for achievement in direction–or Peter Morgan’s for adapted screenplay.
Maybe in forty years an enterprising journalist will be able to extract confessions from those responsible for this anti-film, not to mention from those who rewarded it.