Release Date: April 21, 2009
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew MacFayden, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell
Written by Peter Morgan Based on his stage play
Directed by: Ron Howard
Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie, but a difficult one to evaluate. In its simplest terms, the film adapts Peter Morgan's hit play dramatizing the events concerning David Frost’s televised interviews of former president Richard Nixon in 1977. If we were to view these events as a purely fictional event, in a world where Nixon had never lived, then the liberties taken here would not be such a problem. On its own terms, the film is an effective staging of a Rocky-esque confrontation between Michael Sheen’s Frost and Frank Langella’s Nixon. The performances of the entire cast, particularly the two leads, are quite good. (Both Langella and Sheen originated their roles in the stage production) The period detail is good, Hans Zimmer’s score is effective, and as always, Ron Howard has directed a perfectly competent film that is simple to follow.
But there are some very large problems here, and they really should not be ignored. AT THIS POINT, I’LL TRY TO BRIEFLY STATE WHAT THE ISSUES ARE. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM AND ARE NOT INTERESTED IN THIS KIND OF THING, I RECOMMEND SKIPPING THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH... Basically, the entire premise of the film (and the stage play that inspired it) is a flawed one. The Nixon interviews were not a boxing match, and they did not lead to anything like the major climax that the film portrays. It is true that they were hyped as a kind of boxing match, and that audiences tuned in hoping to see one, but that wasn't how it turned out. In several areas, the film misrepresents the true history of what occurred, and in some places, it completely gets the situations backwards. The film presents a dramatic conversation between Nixon and Frost that helps propel the third act and peels back many of the layers of Nixon’s facade. But this conversation never occurred and is completely an invention. More crucially, the film misrepresents the entire Watergate interview, both by presenting Nixon’s quotes out of context and by making him appear to say the opposite of what he actually did say. A critical recess taken during that interview is played in a manner that misunderstands what was actually happening and gets the facts and their meaning backwards. Critics on both ends of the political spectrum have discussed these issues at length. Nixon’s detractors point out that Nixon had no interest in being an adversary of Frost as he was financially benefitting from the interviews (20 percent of the profits in addition to his upfront fee of 600K) and had always intended to offer a moment of contrition. More conservative commentators have pointed out that Frost in fact did not “nail” Nixon, and that the public and critical reaction at the time was disappointment. In either case, the film’s simplification of some complex issues and its revision of the most critical historical moments make the film too compromised to stand as a reliable examination of Frost or Nixon. Reducing the story to an intellectual boxing match removes much of the subtlety, irony and depth that could have been mined from this material.
Frost Nixon is being released simultaneously on standard definition and Blu-ray. The standard definition includes a commentary by Ron Howard, some deleted scenes, and a trio of featurettes that cover the making of the film, the actual interviews and a visit to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3/5
Frost/Nixon is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer that has a bit of intentional grain to it, presumably to help blend the staged scenes in with the stock video footage that gets things going at the beginning of the film. The footage intentionally varies between the 1977 scenes and some framing vignettes presumably occurring a few years later, which are deliberately a little softer and more washed out. When the Frost/Nixon interviews are happening, things get a bit darker, with the characters’ faces emerging from mostly black backdrops. Again, this is a specific and intended effect, and the black levels here are solid, while the gradation is enough that we can discern between the dark suits worn by the men and the dark backgrounds behind them.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3/5
Frost/Nixon is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in English, French and Spanish. The mix is fine, with the overwhelming majority of the sound coming from the front and center channels. There are occasional surround effects, such as the echoing during a speaking engagement by Nixon, but for the most part, the surround speakers are either silent or playing the score. There’s not much here for a subwoofer to do, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the subject matter.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3/5
The special features included here are certainly appealing, although they also make the film’s problems a bit clearer.
Feature Commentary with Director Ron Howard - This is a scene-specific commentary, although Ron Howard doesn’t really go into detail about what’s on the screen. Usually, he takes the scene at hand as a memory aid, and then discusses either what motivated his choices or tells a production story. A large part of his discussion here has to do with the limited budget of the film. Howard acknowledges that he is currently accustomed to working with much larger budgets than the 25M he had here. As a consequence, the film was made in 38 days in what appear to have been mostly handheld camera setups, many times with no rehearsal. Establishing shots of the Plaza Hotel in New York were accomplished by filming a digital still, rather than sending a crew to another state. As Howard says, this was all possible due to the fact that Langella and Sheen were already so well versed in their roles that they could drop right into their scenes without missing a beat. Howard is enthusiastic throughout his discussion here, and consistently credits his cast and crew for their work. A highlight for me here is Howard’s story of his production designer’s reaction to being told he needed to create three television network offices within the next two days to accommodate scenes that were being added back into the script.
Deleted Scenes– (22:28) (Mostly Non-anamorphic widescreen, with one video scene presented Full Frame) – Just over 20 minutes of deleted scene material is presented, mostly from the early sections of the film. Most of this consists of extensions or additional footage that was not needed. Two versions of Nixon’s complete farewell address to the White House staff are presented here, including one with the customary handheld film look and one on videotape with stationary cameras. The scenes are presented as a group, with no chapter menu, hence no option to watch individual scenes.
The Making of Frost/Nixon - (22:59, Anamorphic) – This is a typical making-of featurette: film clips intercut with on-set video and EPK interviews with the major players saying the usual mutual compliments. Ron Howard discusses the parallels between the story of this film and the travails of the George W. Bush presidency, citing this as a primary reason for making the film. Both he and writer Peter Morgan describe the story as a “thinking man’s Rocky”, with the supporting casts for Frost and Nixon considered their “corner men”. Wardrobe, Production Design and Camera departments are all addressed, particularly in terms of how they dealt with the period demands of this film. The limitations of the budget are discussed here, in terms of how this affected everything from the casting to the amount of time available for production.
The Real Interview - (7:29, Anamorphic) – SOME MAJOR SPOILERS HERE – READ THIS ONLY AFTER SEEING THE FILM! - This featurette is intended to justify the choices made in condensing the interview material seen in the film. In several cases, we are shown the actual interview sections with Nixon, and then their re-enactment within the film. Ron Howard discusses that he made certain that the quotes as presented were essentially correct, although edited down. He clarifies that the film is not intended to be a complete re-enactment, as that would take 12 hours to accomplish. The problem here is that the real Nixon clips are quite brief, and they still omit the context of crucial passages, which readers can find through online research. It is important to know that Nixon qualified everything he said, including his one moment of contrition. It is important to know that Nixon’s most crucial admission (“If the president does it, then it’s not a crime”) was not a direct one about Watergate, and Nixon almost immediately followed with “Yes, and, so that one does not get the impression that a president can run amok in this country and get away with it, we have to have in mind that a president has to come up before the electorate...” He also discussed Congressional oversight and took the conversation back to Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War. So it’s not the huge bombshell that the film presents. More crucially, while the film edits Nixon's statements to make it look like he openly admits to a coverup, in the actual interviews, Nixon makes clear that he is NOT admitting to a coverup. This featurette was the perfect chance for viewers to get to see extended clips of Nixon’s actual statements and correct the record, but instead that opportunity has been lost.
The Nixon Library - (6:22, Anamorphic) – This featurette provides an introduction and brief tour of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. Replicas of various rooms of the White House are shown, as is the actual house where Nixon was born. (It was Nixon’s wish that the library be built near his original home, and this became possible after other potential sites turned Nixon’s people down.) The discussion here is led by two interviews with former Nixon staffers and supporters who work at the library. One major piece of information deserves a little more emphasis here – the library wasn’t opened until 1990, sixteen years after Nixon resigned his office. That’s another reflection of the amount of controversy that continued to surround Nixon until his death.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the special features A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference. When the first disc is initially started, the viewer is presented with an optional series of non-anamorphic previews including Milk, Changeling, Flash of Genius, an anti-smoking PSA and a collective trailer/ad for Focus Films.
IN THE END...
Frost/Nixon is an entertaining and dramatic film that can be enjoyed for its period detail and the performances of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Fans of Ron Howard will enjoy another well-crafted film from him, this time with an enthusiastic commentary to boot. However, as a depiction of real events from 30 years ago, the film falls short. While the film clearly wants to show us the wounded soul of Richard Nixon, there are simply too many shortcuts and too many liberties taken here. The DVD actually clarifies this problem, and can be seen as an instructive look into why the film does not achieve its ultimate goal.
April 18, 2008.