Ron Howard’s film Frost/Nixon made its debut in Leicester Square last night, as the opener of the London Film Festival. And the early reviews (four of them, and from the quality papers as you might expect) are now in.
But before we get to them —second things first— there’s an op-ed in The Times by director Ron Howard, describing his involvement with the project, beginning with his first exposure to the otherwise unprepossessing play when it opened all but unheralded two summers ago in London’s tiny Donmar Warehouse:
Watching Michael Grandage’s production, I sat spellbound, surprised by the range of emotions I felt as the story unfolded. I was there to enjoy a night out, and left fuelled by the determination that I had to be creatively involved with bringing Frost/Nixon to the screen.
Morgan had transformed Richard M. Nixon — the iconic, impenetrable, infuriating President whom I knew primarily from television coverage into — well, into a man. A man whose strengths and power were on open display along with his profound flaws and private longings. Morgan placed Nixon opposite a fascinating “personality” in David Frost, who seemed his unlikeliest confessor. We are given two complex, powerful characters thrown into a conflict that, we gradually learn, is a desperate struggle for dignity and survival for each of them.
It was riveting. I found myself leaning forward in suspense, exhilarated as two gladiators battled with only their formidable wits and wills. The combination of Morgan’s language and the bravura acting yielded scenes as intense and surprising as any thriller. But I also found myself laughing. This was wonderfully intelligent and powerful entertainment. I had to be part of it.
OK — enough backstory. What about the reviews? They’re three quarters positive. (And, to update Meat Loaf’s memorable equation, three out of four ain’t bad.) Even those not unreservedly positive for the film are unreservedly to glowingly positive for the performances.
The Times‘ critic James Christopher writes that “Ron Howard turns this contest between Michael Sheen’s playboy and Frank Langella’s marvellous old creep into one of the most compelling cinema waltzes I’ve yet seen,” and awards the flick four out of five stars.
The build-up to the final confrontation is an absolutely electric piece of cinema, not least because there are vertiginous moments where history is being reminted before your eyes. Does Nixon roll over? It’s a question that will launch a thousand festival debates. The surprise, perhaps, is how much sympathy Howard’s film generates for Langella’s broody, tight-arsed, antihero.
There’s a wonderfully seedy suspicion that Nixon may have sensed that his legacy would mean nothing without a confession: a realisation that to preserve the decent bits of his presidency he might have to fall on his sword.
This is the ingenious point of Morgan’s great script, and it is a horribly relevant tale.
The Independent’s Geoffrey Macnab is stingier with his stars (3 of 5) on the grounds that, well done as it is, what it is is much ado about too little. “Ron Howard excels in making big, intelligent Hollywood movies such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Here, he arguably brings too much artillery for what is essentially a two-hander.”
Of course you can’t make everybody happy, and over at The Guardian Peter Bradshaw (2 of 5) wasn’t best pleased:
As well as creeping impatience, there is a weird sense of deja vu watching the talky, inert drama which opens tonight’s London film festival – about David Frost’s legendary TV interviews in 1977 with the disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon. Its screenwriter, Peter Morgan, gave us The Queen, starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Helen Mirren as the monarch.
Frank Langella rolls over Sheen like a tank in a way that Nixon failed to do with Frost in art or in life. Frost is nervy, darting, ineffectual, but Nixon moves slowly and easily, as if to the beats of some invisible band playing a leisured version of Hail to the Chief. Nixon is a juicy part and Langella extracts every tasty drop.
But the performance has no room to grow. Frost and Nixon have no “real-world” encounters: it is like a boxing movie about two combatants who never meet outside the ring. Of course, they confront each other before and after the main event, with some mind games from Nixon, but these affairs are as formalised as the interviews themselves.
Over at The Telegraph, Sheila Johnston sees things differently —imagine that, the Guardian and the Telegraph not on the same page— in what is more a cursory notice than a proper review. She praises Mr. Howard (“his unostentatious approach proves just right for this project”) and the stars (“their performances are jewels in an entertaining, provocative film of which we should be hearing more come the Oscar nominations”).
The performances —and particularly Frank Langella’s RN— are universally praised. In this respect Mr. Howard learned the truism that, while you can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need. He indulges some Clintonian parsing in his Times piece when he writes that “Some big stars expressed interest in the two lead roles, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else inhabiting those parts with the integrity and artistic power that Frank Langella and Michael Sheen had, night after night in London and on Broadway.” There are no untrue words in that sentence, but it was well and widely known that integity and artistic power would have been thrown under the bus in a Hollywood minute had first choices Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty stopped dithering and signed on.
Mr. Langella’s big screen rendition of his award-winning London and New York performances is singled out for praise in all the reviews. He discusses the role in an interview with The Times‘ Tim Teeman:
Langella’s Nixon is a bully and a victim, an operator outmanoeuvred, shrewd but vulnerable, a crook with, as Morgan writes it, a conscience; irascible and humbled; a villain who feels wronged; bitter yet accepting. One of Nixon’s grandchildren who came to see the play told Langella: “Thank you for making my grandfather human.” Langella says: “It’s the nature of our culture to give things labels, but I wanted to give Nixon a humanity. I felt compassion for him. Looking at what he did compared to what is happening today . . . well, it’s like taking a couple of candies from the jar.” Langella says he is an “independent” voter, not tribally aligned to the Democrats or Republicans.
Over here on our side of The Pond we will have to wait until early December before we can pump out the Coke, pop up the corn, fire up the nachos, and settle in to form our own opinions about Frost/Nixon on the silver screen.