Ron Howard is the reigning genius of the midcult. I say that without derision. He makes movies on important or quasi-important topics that are solidly crafted, well-intended, and yet are done in such a way that there’s little hint of self-importance about them or about Howard himself. There’s a pleasant lack of actual pretentiousness. He’s not a director of vision, but he’s a craftsman of no little skill, who makes very accessible movies that—to put it simply—my mother would like. And while these movies are generally not my dish of tea, there’s nothing wrong them. There’s room for them, maybe even a need for them. Howard is the logical successor to the populist Frank Capra—without the whiff of self-serving importance that clings to some of Capra’s work, but also without Capra’s innate sense of cinema.
Howard’s newest film, Frost/Nixon, is a textbook example of a Howard film—with exactly the strengths and weaknesses this conveys. It differs only in that it’s built around Frank Langella’s towering performance as Richard Nixon (more on that in a minute). Otherwise, it’s a fairly satisfying drama about David Frost (Michael Sheen) and his famous interviews with Nixon. Despite occasional subtle touches, the film will be fully comprehensible to every viewer and threatening to no one—either stylistically or thematically. It’s a solidly human and humanistic work that simply isn’t anything to get worked up over—unless you want to fret over this highly dramatized narrative being taken as literal history, that is.
Based on the play by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and adapted by Morgan, the film brings on both Langella as Nixon and Sheen as Frost from the original stage version. It’s a wise decision in both cases, but an essential one in Langella’s case. Morgan has opened up the play and built up more of a dramatic arc for the proceedings in the film. It works, but it feels more than a little contrived—so completely designed to give the film a three-act structure. It also plays a little fast and loose with history, especially as concerns David Frost, who simply wasn’t the vapid political lightweight depicted in the film. That he might be chided for viewing Nixon in light of a recent show he did with the Bee Gees is believable. That Frost might counter with, “And weren’t they great?” is also within the realm of probability. That Frost would have said that without conscious irony, as he does in the film, seems unlikely and reduces Frost to the level of buffoon.
The need for a dramatic structure also results in some bits of self-contradiction. Early on in the film, the more politically motivated researchers note that Frost had the one thing they didn’t, in that he understood television. Reasonable enough by itself, but it hardly fits in with the film’s suspense-building technique of will Frost or won’t Frost get an admission of wrongdoing out of Nixon, since that technique is built entirely on making Frost look like a novice interviewer who could be flummoxed at every turn by the wily Nixon.
These things—and the overly neat package—to one side, Frost/Nixon is still compelling entertainment. The dramatics between Frost and Nixon in the interview scenes—and in the probably fictional telephone conversation—are things of beauty believably brought to life by the performances of Langella and Sheen. There are also several nice touches of comedy from Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt, while Kevin Bacon brings more to his character of Nixon’s right-hand man than the script affords.
In the end, however, this is Langella’s show. He doesn’t so much impersonate Nixon as he gives us a portrayal that smacks of a Nixon both as we remember him and as we suspected he probably was out of the public eye. His performance is riveting. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him whenever he’s on-screen, and this is at it should be. Whatever one thinks of Nixon as a president or a human being, it’s impossible to deny that he had to be possessed of a canny charisma to have gone as far as he did. Langella’s Nixon isn’t sympathetic, but captures all the various aspects of wit, bluster, bluff, ruthlessness, paranoia and even delusion that made up the man. His Nixon may be a humbug, but he’s a fascinating humbug. The film would be worth seeing just for Langella—and even if nothing else in it quite lives up to that performance, neither does anything about it undermine his accomplishment. Rated R for some language.