FROST/NIXON

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.

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5 thoughts on “FROST/NIXON

  1. jeri says:

    All of the above were my problems with the movie.. but did you like the rest? I did.

  2. Nobody says:

    After I got over the first ten minutes — the first time I’ve ever felt an urge to walk out of a movie — I did enjoy the drama and thought the visual grammar from boxing movies (or just Cinderella Man) during the first interview break was a fun if simplistic metaphor. But it was difficult to keep myself immersed in a movie that kept undermining that immersion with those suspension of disbelief-annihilating interview clips.

    I mean, Rockwell’s closing tribute to the close-up felt like it was from a gratuitous DVD featurette in which the actors, still in costume, chat backstage about why they find the film they’re working on so clever! Is it forgivable to allow the DVD commentary to sneak its way into the film itself?

    But I was still happy I saw it because it made me interested in what really happened, which turns out to be much more interesting than the film’s Anchorman-style face-offs between the Frost and Nixon camps. Though by all accounts Nixon’s reluctance to admit anything was accurate, it was in fact Nixon’s own advisors — and the Kevin Bacon character in particular! — who saw the necessity for an apology of some kind to rehabilitate Nixon’s image.

    As related in the link I posted above by Nixon’s biographer who knew both him and Frost and spent a lot of time at La Casa Pacifica, Nixon’s team even arranged an additional interview to record a pre-meditated admission. And when it looked like he still wouldn’t do it, they had to talk their own man into opening up rather than stonewalling!

    And rather than the win-lose outcome depicted in the film, Nixon’s admission actually launched his ex-presidential career as a foreign policy consultant.

    But like I said in my review, I don’t begrudge a movie, especially one by arch-sentimentalist Ron Howard, for adopting the narrative of a duel (a word actually used in the film!) rather than a collaboration between between friend and foe alike to coax Nixon into expressing regret.

    Another anti-immersion factor was that the film felt more like 2005 than 1977. Frost’s description of the Cambodia incursion sounded more like a question about WMD in Iraq, which betrays the film’s true cathartic basis: it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about Bush apologizing to the nation more than a triumphalist recount of Nixon’s public defeat.

    But whenever I think Howard should be acquitted as merely the director whose job it was to record Morgan’s narrative ( however reductive), I’m reminded that The Queen, which employed the same Sheen vs. Head of State formula, was a very interesting film which deftly used documentary footage to create the impression that in death more than she ever did in life, Diana finally succeeding in haunting the royal family forever!

    In the present case, a good stage play may have begot a bad screenplay to begin with, but Morgan is still the common denominator between The Queen and Frost/Nixon, while the difference between them is Stephen Frears and Ron Howard. No doubt F/N is an improvement from Howard’s usual manipulations, but his glaring lack of subtlety has survived in tact.

    Was the film’s CLOSING line — that Nixon’s political legacy is that every scandal is given the suffix “-gate” — really necessary for anyone over ten years old? I’m not exaggerating: I was eleven during the 1992 election and vividly remember references to the Clintons’ Whitewatergate and knowing why it was called that!

    The fact that Howard’s partner Todd Hallowell was co-executive producer along with Morgan tells me Howard’s camp did not lack the executive authority to exercise line-item vetoes on the script.

  3. Nobody says:

    Whew! Sorry about that, apparently this movie irritates me the more I think about it.

    But to be fair to the film I should confess (!) its positives: all of the acting was great, although Darcy was burdened with some horrible “dialogue” that even Nixon himself couldn’t have spun.

    Nixon’s self-destructive tendencies were fascinating, and the film effectively showed how his years of practice at telling anecdotes influenced his interview. But I was actually more interested in Sheen’s Frost and the way he dealt (or didn’t) with every situation. Rebecca Hall also has a great countenance so I’m glad to see her popping up in everything these days.

    In other words, all of the substance of the film was great, which makes it such a shame that the formal choices kept undermining it. But I’m still glad the performances of Sheen and Langella have been documented for posterity, however poorly.

    The final product is most definitely not the actors’ fault and I applaud the recognitions for their performances. But please, everybody (not you, Jeri), let’s distinguish between good acting and all the other aspects of a movie!

  4. Doraz says:

    Thanks for this review. I wondered about this movie. It did not look very thrilling to me! I guess I was right. To bad because I know first hand how had it is to put a movie together! I am sure the actors worked hard, but you don’t always get the results you are looking for! Nice blog you have!

  5. Nobody says:

    I didn’t mean to imply it’s not dramatic or exciting. The interview scenes themselves are the best part of the movie, and having now seen the real broadcast (at least the one on Watergate, ending with the admission) I must say the actors recreate it very well. Even Frost’s sudden lean forward in response to Nixon asking “what word would you express?” is not overdramatized but reproduced exactly by Sheen.

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