Without Frost/Nixon, if he’d given us only the goofy Obama endorsement that surfaced on Funny or Die just before the election, Ron Howard would be well advised to stay away from political filmmaking.
In that brief, affectedly self-effacing video, Howard addresses his audience directly, declaring his support for the candidate and, in what he calls a demonstration of sincerity, outfitting himself (complete with wig) as the characters he grew up playing on television. He enlists Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler, reprising their respective roles as sheriff Andy Taylor and the Fonz, for a pair of clunky little skits in which the characters discuss America’s future. Then Howard tells us: “We haven’t done those characters in decades. But the three of us agree that with Barack Obama, we Americans have a rare opportunity to elect an extraordinary president.”
And the connection is…what, exactly?
Still, look who walked away with the presidency. Howard must have been on to something, right? Of this, happily, his new movie offers a more coherent example. It’s important to point out that, although well timed to coincide with the departure from office of the often-Nixon-equated George W. Bush, Frost/Nixon’s prognosis for America ultimately has more to do with growing up on television than with politics. But that’s why Howard seems right for the job of directing it.
Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own 2006 play, Frost/Nixon dramatizes the origin and accomplishment of the now-forgotten but then-momentous 1977 TV interviews–spanning six broadcast hours in total–between British talk-show host David Frost and a post-Watergate but still very tricky Dick. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their roles from the award-laden stage version (a hit first in London and then on Broadway), and so it should be; the casting is definitive.
Sheen, so memorably exact as Tony Blair in The Queen (another Morgan script), brings Frost alive more loosely, with a palpable combination of playboy cockiness and vulnerable status anxiety–as befits a ratings-sensitive, reasonably famous media personality who’s not taken seriously as a journalist and not entirely sure he wants to be. He bares his toothy grin as both weapon and shield at once; it’s no wonder at all that Tim Burton has cast Sheen as the Cheshire Cat in the forthcoming film of Alice in Wonderland.
Langella is of course not the first and probably won’t be the last actor to portray the disgraced 37th president on the big screen, but his owership of the role–crass and charming, sonorous and lumbering, venomous and self-loathing–is total. This is so much more than merely an impersonation, and so completely consistent, that every once in a while it becomes hard to remember what the real Nixon looked like.
Through separate actual on-air occasions, Howard introduces the adversaries obliquely, watching from behind as handlers prep them for broadcast. It’s as if both Nixon and Frost are not real to us until they’re camera-ready. Otherwise, the director generally has the good sense to get out of his actors’ way.
Frost/Nixon is inherently reductive–the actual interviews recorded nearly 29 hours worth of material–and its dramatic stakes are accordingly simple. As Nixon puts it, both he and Frost want a way back to the “winner’s podium,” and they both know that when their contest has ended, “the limelight can only shine on one of us.” Each man, in other words, seeks the ultimate comeback–redemption as defined by the public perception of legitimacy.
The duelists have their seconds–and thirds and fourths and so on. Kevin Bacon gamely plays Nixon’s loyal, tough-but-wounded military aide, Marine Colonel Jack Brennan, and Toby Jones is the president’s peculiar, homuncular agent, Swifty Lazar, who compels Frost to cough up $600,000 for the privilege of the interview (even in spite of TV networks unwilling to countenance “checkbook journalism”). Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Rockwell round out team Frost, whose shared goal is the telegenic satisfaction of scoring the apology America never got.
Not unlike Howard’s foray into online political PSA, Frost/Nixon has something of a so-what factor. It seems like an exercise mostly for its own sake. But there is also a sense of security with its own limitations. To Howard, understandably, it’s an enduring fascination: Nixon on TV = unhappy days.