Presidential Droll

Frost/Nixon needs a better editor.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Dec. 10, 2008

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Fireside chats: Michael Sheen (left) and Frank Langella revisit Richard Nixon's visit to David Frost's talk show.

In what ranks as my all time most embarrassing celebrity encounter, I met Ron Howard about 15 years ago. Living in New York at the time, I'd somehow dumbassed my way into an early rough-cut test screening of his underrated newsprint comedy The Paper. When inexplicably invited to participate in an anonymous postmortem audience Q&A afterward, I praised the film as a whole, but bitterly, viciously objected to one particular scene near the end, describing it to the studio-hired moderator/lackey as "typical Ron Howard bullshit."

Had I bothered to turn around and glance behind me, I might've noticed Howard and his producer Brian Grazer a couple rows back, listening in on their audience's reaction. As it was, I headed for the door after being dismissed and somehow found myself face to face with Richie Cunningham himself.

The man, to his everlasting credit, was unfailingly polite and kind. We shook hands and spoke a bit about the movie and some past projects, but never once in our conversation did he mention that I was just some obviously drunk 18-year-old college student and he was the famous Hollywood legend that I'd just openly ragged on while he sat within earshot.

Here's the punch line: A few months later that scene I hated so vociferously was nowhere to be found in The Paper 's final cut. For better or worse, that's always how I've seen Ron Howard: as a fundamentally kind and egregiously overaccommodating man who bends and edits according to the whims of his target audience, even if they're as unqualified and obviously wasted as I was that particular Tuesday night.

Other than Edward Zwick, is there a duller filmmaker working today? Howard may have started his career with a sly knack for human comedy (Night Shift and Splash still hold up wonderfully) but the poor guy just keeps pushing himself into deeper and darker projects that he can't quite handle.

Frost/Nixon is a fine example. Based on Peter Morgan's smash 2006 stage play, the film attempts to chronicle the travails of schlock TV host David Frost (expertly played by Michael Sheen) as he overpays and underprepares for an epic stretch of interviews with "Tricky Dick" Nixon (played by the always magnificent Frank Langella, who's a bit too grave and Shakespearean to truly convey the disgraced leader's wormy, shifty mannerisms, no matter how impressive his jowls).

Morgan's been here before, as he wrote the script for 2006's The Queen and thus obviously knows a thing or two about casting Sheen as a force of swinging modernity butting up against a ramrod-straight figure of aging entrenched power with a ton of media coverage hanging in the balance. As long as Howard sticks with the principals, Frost/Nixon remains an undeniably compelling chess game. Despite cutting far too elegant a figure to truly nail the part, Langella at least hits the fundamental weirdness of Nixon, killing with his bizarre non-sequiturs and terrible jokes.

Alas, this historic moment in television history is oversold from the get-go, as Howard disastrously decided to "open up the play" by incorporating a corny mockumentary format, in which supporting characters played by Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon directly address the camera and hyperbolically explain the history-shattering dramatic import of everything we've just seen.

I like all these actors, and I particularly enjoy that whenever Bacon is asked to play some sort of right-wing sycophant (as he does here, playing Nixon's long-suffering chief of staff Jack Brennan) he goes seriously gay. It's like JFK or A Few Good Men all over again, except this time he's even queenier!

But what I don't appreciate is a fine two-character drama interrupted by constant cutaways to needless side characters in the peanut gallery who can't stop overexplaining the blatantly obvious historical context and blurting out subtext in bold print while breathlessly informing me how I should feel about what just happened.

Sometimes I worry that Ron Howard actually listens to every dumb 18-year-old drunk kid who tells him how to edit his movies.

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COMMENTS

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1. james said... on Dec 25, 2008 at 01:08PM

“your an unqualified dope”

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2. Barbara Thau said... on Dec 28, 2008 at 10:54PM

“this is soooo on the mark--everyone else--time, the new york times, got it wrong. This movie is made-for-tv movie hokey.”

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3. Eddie the Liar said... on Jun 6, 2009 at 09:49PM

“I was in that audience that night, and I remember that comment, all of us heard it. We waited until Ron Howard finished talking with Sean Burns and then jumped him. We issued him a viscious beatdown. We taught him a thing or two about honor that night, I can assure you.”

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