The Crop: Frost/Nixon
The Studio: Universal
The Director: Opie Cunningham! Opie Cunningham! Opie Cunningham!
The Writer: Peter Morgan
The Producers: Howard, Brian Grazer, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner
The Actors: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen
The Premise: British talk show host David Frost’s televised interrogation of Richard M. Nixon in 1976 turns into an all-out attempt to extract an apology from the disgraced former President for his misleading of a nation.
The Context: Did Peter Morgan scarf down a big bowl of prolificacy* or what? At this time last year, he was completely off the radar; now, he’s the most sought after screenwriter in town not named Matthew Michael Carnahan. What happened in the interim? The Last King of Scotland (Best Actor: Forest Whitaker), The Queen (Best Actress: Helen Mirren) and the London/NYC productions of Frost/Nixon (Soon-to-be Best Actor in a Play: Frank Langella). Morgan also wrote the script for the well-received Longford, a biopic about the controversial British politician starring Jim Broadbent, and The Other Boleyn Girl, Justin Chadwick’s forthcoming feature starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson as two sisters who challenge each other to a long, sweaty fuck-off for the right to marry King Henry VIII.
While Morgan took home a slew of critics’ awards (mostly for The Queen), he lost the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Michael Arndt and Little Miss Sunshine, and may very well miss out on the Tony Award for Best Play because it’s not just every year audiences get a nine-hour epic from Tom Stoppard dramatizing the inception of Russian socialism. Boo-hoo, right? Well, when you’re a hard-charger like Morgan (and, let’s face it, you don’t just sail in from the Isle of Nowhere to get four features produced over a two-year period without possessing a surfeit of pharmaceutical grade moxie), these snubs tend to sting like a wet towel snap to the exposed buttock. The personal satisfaction of a job well done means nothing if those haughty AMPAS bastards won’t cough up the hardware.
Your only choice, then, is to hook up with a director who knows how to dazzle Academy voters with the illusion of prestige, and there’s no more proficient practitioner of this art form than Opie Cunningham his damn self, Ron Howard. A master panderer with an underrated facility for delivering entertaining product that’s not half as insulting as it should be (and for collaborating with top-tier talent across the board), Howard is the miracle worker who helped get Batman-wrecker Akiva Goldsman a Best Screenplay Oscar. What’s Morgan’s worst sin? The Very Thought of You? If that’s all, then he’s covered because a) no one saw it, and b) it’s not like he was responsible for putting Monica Potter and Joseph Fiennes in the same movie together (thus concocting the most powerful cinematic soporific since The Bostonians).
Now that Howard’s wrongheaded attempt to cast Warren Beatty as Nixon has failed, forcing him to go with Langella (who’s earning unanimous raves from Broadway critics), Frost/Nixon is practically the default frontrunner for all of the major 2009 Oscars by virtue of being a known and honored quality. What could possibly go wrong?
The Script: Academy voters suddenly rouse from their lifelong stupor and realize that Frost/Nixon is as prefab as Morgan’s scripts for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland?
I have yet to read or see a production Morgan’s stage version of Frost/Nixon, so I’m obviously not qualified to opine on how he’s expanded or, perhaps, completely transmogrified the original work. I will say, however, that this is the kind of material that works much better on its feet under the direction of a talent like Michael Grandage, but, most likely, loses something when put before cameras by a high-functioning hack like Ron Howard.
As it stands, Morgan’s screenplay is a template for a film that promises to be sensationally entertaining and too familiar. It begins with the end of Nixon’s Presidency, where Tricky Dick infuriated his political foes by refusing to atone for any wrongdoing, be it the Watergate break-in, the subsequent cover-up, or his escalation of hostilities in Vietnam (before finally withdrawing most U.S. troops in 1973). As Nixon delivers his brilliant "fuck you" of a farewell speech ("Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself"), we’re introduced, via a series of interviews, to the key players who will, three years later, elicit a measure of contrition from the former President. The major player in this drama is David Frost, a charismatic talk show host whose primary concern is carrying off what he considers great television. Frost considers Nixon’s farewell address an exemplary bit of live television; he is transfixed, and immediately begins trying to nail down Nixon for an extensive series of post-resignation interviews.
Morgan also introduces the audience to Frost’s producer, John Birt, and two grudge-bearing researchers, James Reston and Bob Zelnick, who will arm the rambunctious host with the information necessary to reduce Nixon to actual honesty. Because these characters don’t enter the story immediately, they’re shown giving interviews in 1980 to an anonymous interviewer, which, while not a terribly effective device, does keep the script moving at a brisk pace.
Nixon’s camp, on the other hand, is headed up by Chief of Staff Jack Brennan and the famous literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, who brokers the phenomenally rich deal that gets Nixon and Frost together (and practically bankrupts the latter, who agrees to such an exorbitant appearance fee that the American networks completely shun him). Brennan is depicted as a loyal bulldog who yearns to restore Nixon’s reputation so that they can return East – "where the action is", as the former President puts it. That Nixon could still harbor hopes of a political comeback underscores just how delusional the man was in the wake of his unprecedented fall from grace.
Frost also acquires a girlfriend, Caroline Cushing, while orchestrating his coup de television, and, to Morgan’s credit, she’s not entirely extraneous; her presence is crucial during Frost’s first visit to Nixon’s San Clemente estate, as she helps to disarm the socially awkward grump. But Caroline is still insignificant in the grander scheme when compared to Reston and Zelnick, both of whom serve Frost only because of the opportunity he’s scored and not out of any respect for his previous work (which they might very well hold in contempt).
One of Frost/Nixon‘s most intriguing elements is that Frost’s goal isn’t at all principled; bullying an apology out of Nixon is just a means of forcing American television execs to give him another crack at a syndicated show in the states. What Morgan is never able to do effectively – on the page, at least – is build Nixon up as a sympathetic antagonist. Nixon has always been an easy target for vilification, but he was also an intellectual who, throughout his term, scored some remarkable foreign policy victories. Unfortunately, Morgan only concedes this in the broadest of terms by treating these attributes as a given; the intermittent greatness of Nixon is what makes his meanness all the more fascinating.
As was the case in The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan’s greatest failing as a dramatist is his tendency to fall back on stock scenes. He’s also incredibly lazy with dialogue, as illustrated by this exchange following Nixon’s exit from the White House:
Brennan: It’s a travesty, sir.
NIXON stares out the window.
Brennan: This country has made a terrible mistake.
Nixon: Well, it’s done now. And unlike ’60 or ’62, this time there’s no coming back.
Brennan: Never say never, Mr. President. But what you need first is rest. Spend some time with your family. Then we can start working on your memoirs. And who knows? Anything can happen.
Nixon: No, Jack. Not this time. This time it’s over.
NIXON’s eyes stare out of the window.
Nixon: This time it’s the wilderness.
Okay, Langella can save that last bit with delivery, but the rest? Awful. Trite. Expository. First, it’s a conversation these two gentlemen have undoubtedly had by now; second, the only reason you have Nixon bring up ’60 and ’62 is to give audiences ignorant of the history a sense of failures past. If you want to convey that, have one of the talking heads from the first ten pages of the screenplay voice it. Or, better yet, be a good writer and find a clever way to indicate it without saying it.
It’s frustrating when Morgan cheats like this – and he does it all the time – because, when he wants to, he can write a wonderful scene. Think about Queen Elizabeth’s moment with the slain stag, or the harrowing torture sequence at the end of The Last King of Scotland. In Frost/Nixon, there’s a great running gag about Nixon’s obsession with Frost’s Italian-made shoes, while the script’s final sequence is the conclusion to a great film. But these moments are not going to counter Morgan’s persistent indulgence in cliché. After all, the entire screenplay is structured like a sports movie (obviously, the interview itself is meant to resemble a boxing match, but, beat for beat, the entire script is as fresh as Miracle). If Morgan has made few changes, the production of Frost/Nixon currently running on Broadway must be a triumph of performance, staging and set design, because the script is terribly pat.
Why It Should Be Good: Langella’s performance has drawn raves in London and New York City, so it’ll be exciting to see what this great, underappreciated actor does with a man who is easy to lampoon but very difficult to embody.
Why It Might Suck: Lack of subtlety can kill a movie like this, and Howard isn’t a skilled enough director to ensure that it doesn’t descend into a softheaded act of piety like, say, Ghosts of Mississippi.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: I’d like to do that new Chan-Wook Park movie, but the deals haven’t closed yet. I will say that, if it happens, Park’s going to be taking on a genre that might surprise you.
*I.e. King Vitamin.