Pardon this ex-president for
taking David Frost lightly

Biopic Disease is contagious this time of year. The disease involves making a movie about a subject that is more interesting if left to a PBS documentary, then earning widespread acclaim for an actor’s mimickry of a famous person.

Welcome to ”Frost/Nixon.”

Many filmmakers have tried to do something relevant about Richard Nixon, yet only one — “All the President’s Men,” in 1976 — can be considered an undeniable success. As of December 2008, the streak has reached 32 years, and remains intact.

“Frost/Nixon” is not a total bust — for those interested in Nixon or these particular interviews, it’s worth a look — but is profoundly disappointing given its critical acclaim. It overpromises and underdelivers, and has telegraphed way too much of the meat of the movie in promos that have been appearing for months (including some out-of-sequence footage that is deceptive compared with the actual film).

There just isn’t much of a story here; Frost got these interviews by paying for them, people watched them, and they settled nothing. Director Ron Howard realizes this, that no one will care much about the path of Michael Sheen’s Frost, and so he constructs a larger-than-life Nixon, like Gordon Gekko a great villain made to steal a mediocre show.

As far as too many critics are concerned, it worked.

Frank Langella indeed nails the Nixon mimickry, and this alone likely will be richly rewarded just as it was for Forest Whitaker in “Last King of Scotland,” Jamie Foxx in “Ray” and Sean Penn in “Milk,” which will be steep competition for Langella. He’s too big (apparently 6-foot-4, while the real Nixon was 5-11), but that’s probably how Howard wanted it, a massively polarizing character who fills the room. It’s unlikely many American filmgoers even know what David Frost looks like and less likely that they care whether Sheen resembles him at all. One problem though is that many people did see the recent “The Queen,” in which Sheen was spot-on as Tony Blair, and it is hard not to still think of him as Tony Blair in this film that bears his new character’s name.

The case for Frost’s coming-of-age as a serious interviewer — the thrust of the script — is startlingly weak. Despite being a prominent person of accomplishment, he seems a bit of a flake, hosting offbeat TV shows in Britain or Argentina, womanizing at every opportunity, and his shows are being canceled, his career in decline. This evidently makes him a prime target for Nixon and his P.R. handlers, who are interested in cashing in as much as possible on the public interest in him.

So Frost finally responds to life’s wake-up call, he puts his own money at stake, he works hard to find sponsors, he stays up late at night, he limits himself to a single girlfriend, and his hard work should eventually pay off. There’s the story, and no one cares.

There are some successes in the script. Langella provides an engrossing portrayal of presidential indifference. Every human being has various sensitivity levels to everything. Most people do not want to be hated, recoil at the thought, and cannot bear to be the target of public abuse. These people cannot seek the presidency of the United States, no matter what their ideology. The criticisms, the lies, the rumors, the smearing, the hatred, will be there, for every candidate, to some degree.

The best politicians are somehow able to ignore all of the above while keeping a finger on the pulse of sentiment. It is the former that Richard Nixon and George W. Bush specialize in and what makes them confoundingly offensive to many. In general they must believe they are right, or they will never reach this level. The trick to saving your approval rating is in knowing how to acknowledge the public when it feels differently, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were (grudgingly) able to do. Nixon could not.

Frustration is not such an exciting subject to depict in a movie, but Howard does an admirable job, showing the chief anti-Nixon writer, who encapsulates the national mood, wearily mocking the direction of the project and lack of resources put into the cause of taking down Richard Nixon. It doesn’t seem like there is a major problem getting Nixon to talk — only to say what people want to hear him say.

Howard, though, like a candidate 12 points behind in October, relies on a grab bag of thematic elements to bolster a weak case. For some reason there is a depiction of Diane Sawyer as one of Nixon’s aides, the suggestion obviously being that mainstream media was complicit in Nixon’s silence and adding to Frost’s valor. Characters played by Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt are as simple as the toys in a cereal box. Frost’s staff of professional TV writers and producers is shown cheering childishly in a couple instances during the interview as though their mothers had just agreed to serve pancakes for dinner that night. To diminish Langella’s risk of being too likable, he makes a negative comment about interracial marriage and an inferiority-complex diatribe about societal elites looking down on himself and Frost, a theme echoed in “W.”

The soundtrack — which would figure to have great potential here, mid- to late 1970s — is more or less nonexistent.

Worst, though, is an imaginary phone call — Howard admits it did not actually happen — used to portray Nixon as beyond out of touch. Presidents, even good ones, occasionally do strange things, but this scene suggests Alzheimer’s, or at a minimum, a drinking problem.

Because Howard has chosen to do a movie on a very specific real event, it is only fair to ask how much artistic license he’s using. This is the problem with most biopics; it is decided there is not enough real story for a movie (“Yankee Doodle Dandy” being a grand exception), so things will be invented. This is OK in “JFK,” a movie not about the assassination but about public sentiment over it. It’s a much harder sell, in a picture like “Frost/Nixon,” to portray the ex-president as more depraved than widely believed and the interviews to be a greater success than they actually were.

There is the implication that Nixon was way ahead of Frost on most subjects, but was tripped up by one tiny bit of research into a matter of Watergate public record. Is it really believable that someone like Nixon, understanding the political ramifications of this interview, a veteran of countless interviews and debates as a politician, would actually be caught off-guard by Watergate questions and utter answers he was not supposed to? Perhaps, but this is another problem with the movie, as Howard makes no attempt to depict the public reaction to the interviews, if there is a way to do it at all.

Howard apparently dismisses an interesting question: Why does any person agree to give an interview? Without question, it is to express one’s point of view. Yet Nixon is mostly depicted as duplicitous and scheming for his attempts to handle the topics in his own terms. If his goal were confession or apology, he certainly would not need Frost. Howard suggests Frost is entitled to not only get his cake but eat it too.

Howard essentially gives Gerald Ford a pass. There is disdain shown for the pardon. Historians argue to this day, and probably will forever, as to whether Ford made the correct call. This would be grounds for a more interesting film, which could take one of two approaches: Ford as a conscientious public servant who spared the country trauma at his own political expense; or Ford the enabler who bailed out a criminal. One thing does seem clear: Ford should’ve been able to demand an apology and tell-all in exchange for the pardon, rather than leaving that all-important assignment to fringe journalists like Frost.

Ron Howard, a very likable person in Hollywood, has a track record as a director of doing better with Oscar voters than with tough critics. He collected best picture for “A Beautiful Mind,” one of the most dubious films in recent memory that took alarming liberties with a rather dull subject. “Apollo 13” was better, but more fit for PBS. “The Paper” and “The Da Vinci Code” were sleep enhancers; “Cinderella Man” and “Far and Away” are fine productions. Howard was 20 years old when Richard Nixon resigned, and this film has all the fingerprints of a youthful outrage that hasn’t ceased — an idealistic young person disgusted with a politician that he can now take a crack at. Howard is a Democrat who has given to John Kerry,, state Democratic parties and Barack Obama (as far back as January 2007). There are similarities here with Emilio Estevez in the 2006 film “Bobby,” done by a man who warmly recalled the excitement of the Robert Kennedy campaign and the despair over his assassination. Such motivation is fine, but in the case of such well-known figures as Nixon and RFK, has been attempted too many times by too many others.

This is a movie that taps into the frustrations of many about seemingly unaccountable leaders. It’s for those who want to see Nixon repudiated, apologizing, confessing, much the same way many feel about George W. Bush. Except Nixon was regarded as a mental giant, a scheming mastermind of dirty politics, while Bush is regarded as a country bumpkin, and so this film wants Nixon attacked in the debate format while Oliver Stone’s recent “W.” merely wants to show a clueless child of privilege with massive chip on his shoulder bumble his way around Texas and Washington.

People who will look forward to this film are ones who find Nixon extremely offensive. They will cheer the small victories apparently elicited by Frost. Unfortunately for them, the 37th president is long gone, long since pardoned, and this story is never going to have a happy ending.

2.5 stars
(December 2008)

“Frost/Nixon” (2008)
Starring Frank Langella as Richard Nixon ♦ Michael Sheen as David Frost ♦ Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr. ♦ Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan ♦ Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt ♦ Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick ♦ Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing ♦ Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar ♦ Andy Milder as Frank Gannon ♦ Kate Jennings Grant as Diane Sawyer ♦ Gabriel Jarret as Ken Khachigian ♦ Jim Meskimen as Ray Price ♦ Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon ♦ Geoffrey Blake as Interview Director ♦ Clint Howard as Lloyd Davis ♦ Rance Howard as Ollie ♦ Gavin Grazer as White House Director ♦ Simon James as Frost Show Director ♦ Eloy Casados as Manolo Sanchez ♦ Jay White as Neil Diamond ♦ Will Albert as Sammy Cahn ♦ Keith MacKechnie as Marv Minoff ♦ Penny Moore as Lady with Dachshund ♦ Janneke Arent as Frost’s Female Assistant ♦ David Ross Paterson as Birt TV Show Presenter ♦ Jennifer Hanley as Makeup Woman ♦ Robert Pastoriza as Interview Cameraman #1 ♦ Louie Mejia as Interview Cameraman #2 ♦ Kevin P. Kearns as Fan at Airport ♦ David Kelsey as Smith House Reporter #1 ♦ James Ritz as Smith House Reporter #2 ♦ Pete Rockwell as Smith House Reporter #3 ♦ Ned Vaughn as Secret Serviceman ♦ Simone Kessell as Airport Check-In Woman ♦ Ben Pauley as Australian Stage Manager ♦ Noah Craft as Australian Stage Director ♦ Taylor Singer as Stewardess ♦ Kaine Bennett Charleston as Sydney Assistant Director ♦ Gregory H. Alpert as White House Cinematographer ♦ Kimberly Robin as Ma Masion Girl ♦ Michelle Manhart as Disco Girl ♦ Steve Kehela as Premiere Reporter #1 ♦ Anthony H. Acker as Premiere Reporter #2 ♦ John Kerry as Man at Disco ♦ Jenn Gotzon as Tricia Nixon ♦ Googy Gress as Network Executive #1 ♦ Marc McClure as Network Executive #2 ♦ Joe Spano as Network Executive #3

Directed by: Ron Howard

Written by: Peter Morgan

Producer: Ron Howard
Producer: Brian Grazer
Producer: Tim Bevan
Producer: Eric Fellner
Associate producer: William M. Connor
Associate producer: Louisa Velis
Associate producer: Kathleen McGill
Executive producer: Todd Hallowell
Executive producer: Peter Morgan

Original music: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Editing: Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
Casting: Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins
Production design: Michael Corenblith
Art direction: Brian O’Hara, Gregory Van Horn
Set decoration: Susan Benjamin
Costume design: Daniel Orlandi
Makeup and hair: Edouard F. Henriques, Colleen Callaghan, Justin Stafford, Elizabeth Hoel, Sabine Roller, Karyn Huston
Unit production manager: Kathleen McGill
Stunts: Rick Avery, Michael Hugghins


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