I like Ron Howard. I really do. Especially when he makes movies like Apollo 13. There was only one way to nail that movie, and Howard got it.
I enjoyed Ransom and Backdraft, as well. But when Ron Howard makes movies like The Grinch and The DaVinci Code, that’s when I take issue. Both of these movies required a unique take–an auteur’s spin, if you will. And this is where Howard comes up short. Again and again and again it seems that he directs material in the most painfully obvious way. With DaVinci, he tried desperately to inject action and excitement in expository scenes, going so far as showing a CG flashback to an ancient era to visually narrate what Tom Hanks was talking about. In A Beautiful Mind, he builds up the “big reveal” with such zest that the whole movie hinges on it and, in the end, fails because of it (in my oh-so-humble opinion).
When I heard Howard was directing Frost/Nixon, though, I was encouraged. Perhaps he would bring his straightforward approach to a really interesting real-life story, and the movie would shine. Not so much. Because the biggest flaw with Frost/Nixon is this: the real-life story isn’t that interesting, and nobody involved with bringing it to the screen seems to care.
Let’s flashback a couple of years to a movie like Good Night, and Good Luck. That is a great example of how a creative director’s take and careful consideration can elevate a story. By presenting the audience with a no-nonsense analysis of the legendary fight between Edward R. Murrow and Senator McCarthy, the film becomes about more than just this single exchange. It becomes about sensationalism in media, about the role of the press, about the ability of fear to drive a mass audience, and about the power of television as an emerging format. The movie never lets itself over-dramatize the events of the story. This is who was there, and this is what happened. Just the facts, ma’am.
Frost/Nixon is exactly the opposite. Each frame drips with borderline melodrama. Every bit of subtext is milked and brought to the forefront, often through the ham-handed usage of faux retrospective interviews with the characters. (There is even, God help me, a scene where characters talk AT LENGTH about the power of a close-up instead of just letting the close-up speak for itself). Howard is terrified that the audience will “miss” the importance of the events of his film, so he lays them out hard and with no room for interpretation. In the end, it feels like the film is attempting to elevate an important and interesting event to a near-iconic status that it doesn’t deserve. I don’t buy it.
The second huge flaw with the film is the use of movie cliches. It feels as though the screenwriters worked very hard to fit this out-of-the-box story into a three-act structure, complete with every political (and sports!) movie cliche there is. There is even a big “preparing for the big game” montage as Frost, after failing in his first interviews, prepares day and night for the final interview by pouring over books, discovering new information, and working on his body language and posture. Nevermind that he has had months to do this before. Nevermind that the stakes are exactly the same as they have been the entire movie, and Frost has been trying his absolute best the entire film to “get the truth” from Nixon. The movie realizes it’s moving into act three, and a montage is artificially inserted to amp-up the adrenaline.
It’s sloppy, unnecessary, and somewhat insulting.
In the end, it feels like the filmmakers believe Frost has accomplished something he really hasn’t. Had they used the material to say something about the era or politics–television, character or anything interesting, I would have been with it. Instead, we get a paint-by-numbers “political intrigue” movie that leaves you either shrugging your shoulders or feeling ripped off.
The fact that Frost/Nixon has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture really only says one thing: Universal and Ron Howard have a lot of power–and money. Had this been released by some no-name director, it would have been roundly ignored, and rightly so.
I don’t think this movie will win on the 22nd, but if it does, I will cry a single tear of sadness. And a small part of me might die.