"I told you it was 'gotcha' journalism," laughed Ron Howard after effectively being called out by the Jacob Burns' own Steve Apkon. Apkon had just shown a clip of Howard as Opie (The Andy Griffith Show), desperately trying to get his 'pa to listen to some phone conversations he had taped. "I don't even remember doing that scene," said Howard, "but now we know what political party Opie was headed for." The clip was both timely and fitting given that it followed a screening of Howard's newest film, Frost/Nixon. The film centers on a dramatic retelling of the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews of 1977. Prior to seeing this film, I wasn't aware that these tapes even existed, but now they are everywhere. The historic interviews were then turned into the groundbreaking play, written by Peter Morgan. The title roles were originated by actors Michael Sheen and Frank Langella on stage, and now they are the stars of the film. Both men come barreling onto the screen in their own way. While Sheen does it with a glittering smile and mesmerizing blue eyes, Langella does it with a shaky fist and booming, era-appropriate voice. Whether you went into the film with this intention or not, you fall in love with both the leads as they march over you with their insecurities. Howard was so aptly able to catch moments of true fragility from both actors, that the simple story became a heartbreaking boxing match.
The film is beautifully shot and carefully crafted by an artisan who's spent his entire life in the business of film. I've been impressed with Howard before, but Frost/Nixon is an accomplishment by him that people haven't seen before. After the screening, he spoke a lot about how the most gripping moment of the real life Frost/Nixon interviews was a close-up shot of Nixon as he gave into Frost's bantering and apologized to the American people for a terrible mistake. It was this one moment within 30 hours of tape, that changed political history forever. It is the crux of the film. As Langella stares blankly past the camera, you can feel he's been beaten down to nothing, and by a British talk show host at that. You are witnessing the lowest moment of a man's life. It may seem easy, but capturing that on film is anything but. This intimate moment didn't end up feeling like a cheap imitation of the real thing (as I had worried), but instead takes on a life of it's own.
Frank Langella was not most people's first choice for the film role of Nixon, despite his critically acclaimed performance in the stage play. He and Howard have both spoken frankly, that at a certain point, he seemed almost out of the running entirely. He doesn't look like Nixon for starters, but as he channel's the character, you find yourself believing in him with ease. "I told him that he may not have been high on the studio's list, but he was at the top of mine," said Howard. The director got his way and brought Langella along for the ride. The Queen's Michael Sheen was a perfect fit for the part of David Frost from the start (and he actually did look like the real person). I was a bit skeptical of his performance at first, but Sheen breaks your heart onscreen, both when he smiles and when he completely gives up. There is something so intense about the expressiveness of his face, you feel hypnotized. I actually couldn't say whether Sheen is a gifted actor, or just gifted facially. Either way, his performance as David Frost is memorable (or maybe I'm just under his spell).
The film has a lot to offer its audience. You are able to delve head first into these rich, meaty characters during the most important time in their lives (whether they knew it or not). Both actors were able to sidestep becoming caricatures, which can often be the downfall of a film based on real life people. As the verbal battle ensues between them, both men fight with all they've got. At a certain point, you don't know who you're rooting for anymore (another cinematic accomplishment by Howard). Frost and Nixon may be the headliners, but they are a part of an all star cast. Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfayden, and Oliver Platt are able to shine, despite what could have easily an been overshadowing presence by the leads. Rockwell in particular does a superb job in finding the humor and nailing it.
I plucked up the courage to ask Howard a question of my own. "Your portrayal of Nixon's Chief of Staff, played by Kevin Bacon, is that he was loyal till the end, and that he felt a deep love for Nixon. From your interviews with Nixon's real staff, was this really the case?" It may not have been the best question of the night, but it was one I really wanted to know the answer to. Howard responded that whatever else they may ultimately feel about Nixon and his choices, one thing is abundantly clear; anyone who worked with him has an unwavering respect for the man. This feeling of reverence resonates strongly throughout the film. Howard spoke of how he felt betrayed by the man he once voted for. However, the film tells a different story. A deeply flawed man tried to make people love him, but failed miserably. But he tried, and as simple as that is, I think it's the whole point.
Short and Sweet
Beautiful character film about two men who fight with all their might to come out on top. The cast hits all the right notes as a whole and compliment each other. This is a definite must-see, but seeing it in theaters is not critical, so maybe save your $10.75 and wait to Netflix it.
There's a lot that happened in the Q&A, but I don't want the review to be longer than it is already, so feel free to email me if you want to know more about Howard's discussion of the film. Sorry it took so long to get this up! Reviews of Milk, Slumdog Millionaire and Adam Resurrected coming soon!