Frost/Nixon is one of those Oscar-bait movies that gets the Academy all worked up. Throw in two titanic actors (Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in this case), a hot-button issue, prestigious art direction, and you’ve got a film destined to make certain Top 10 lists. Not mine, though. Oh, wait. This one will make my Top 10 list.
But why does this piece of Oscar bait thrill me while Doubt leaves me in a funk? It’d be easy to say that the subject matter has something to do with it. I’ve been a political junkie since I was in elementary school, and the paper I remember most from junior high was on Watergate. So a movie about President Nixon’s interviews with the British talk show host David Frost has an innate appeal. Even better, re-living the moment when the Dark Lord of the Sith received his comeuppance is most satisfying. And the movie is smart enough to subtly link Nixon’s abuse of power with our current president’s comedy of errors. Maybe it’s just me, but the Nixon quote “I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal” has real contemporary bite.
That doesn’t quite explain my differing opinions, though. For the subject matter of Doubt--the struggle with religious uncertainty--would usually be right up my alley, as well. So what’s different about this prestige pic?
I know that part of the reason I love Frost/Nixon is Langella’s brilliant inhabitation of the former president. Not that he’s doing a strict imitation and winning points like Cate Blanchett did when she impersonated Katherine Hepburn. Rather, Langella is absolutely compelling in the role, revealing so many shades of Nixon’s personality: his view of and thirst for power, his slimy charm, his deep-seated insecurities and the arrogance they foster, his venality, and, most significantly, his loneliness. I don’t necessarily come away feeling sorry for Nixon, but I feel like I understand him and even have compassion for him. Langella takes what had become a caricature in modern society (“I am not a crook”) and peels back the layers to show his humanity. It’s a wonderfully nuanced portrayal and one of my favorites of the last several years. I’m a bit surprised, actually, that Langella isn’t seen as a shoo-in for the Oscar.
Against such a towering performance, it would’ve been easy for Michael Sheen to be blown off the screen, but he mostly holds his own. He shows that his turn as Tony Blair in The Queen wasn’t just a lucky break but the work of a real actor. And he makes Frost almost as interesting a character as Nixon, not an easy accomplishment.
Still, Doubt also has a couple great performances. So it’s not just the acting that separates the two films.
As strange as it might sound, the deciding factor in Frost/Nixon’s greatness is director Ron Howard. Now Howard doesn’t get a lot of love in film critic circles. ‘Workmanlike’ is usually the highest praise he’ll receive. But what I particularly appreciate about his direction here is that he knows how to get out of the way and let the smart script and brilliant actors carry the day. He doesn’t need to gussy it up with unusual camera angles or metaphorical subplots.
Just as importantly, Howard makes nice subtle decisions--saving his closeups for when they really matter, using shadows to set the mood, and establishing a vigorous pace. The film covers a lot of ground in the first hour in a way that’s compelling and easy to understand. This allows the movie to slow down when we actually get to the interviews, so we can savor the prize fight in front of us. It would’ve been easy to mess all of this up, but Ron Howard is enough of a pro so that we don’t even see him sweat.