The play won a Tony in 2007, and writer Peter Morgan adapted it for the screen. His first film was Madame Sousatzki in 1988. I remember watching it on HBO and loving Shirley MacLaine’s performance as the old piano teacher. Morgan also wrote The Last King of Scotland and The Queen a few years ago; and with Ron Howard directing, I was looking forward to it.
Here’s the story. In 1977, a British talk show host that usually just did fluff and entertainment style pieces, snagged an interview with Richard Nixon. That wouldn’t be so eventful, except for the fact that he’s the only reporter to ever get a public apology out of him for the Watergate scandal. This took 12 days of interviews, and what I found so fascinating is that I knew nothing about this story. I didn’t even know the reporter – David Frost (played by Michael Sheen of The Queen and Blood Diamond).
This is the type of movie with a bunch of talking heads that could just be boring, especially at two hours long. Yet I was engrossed in it the entire time. That helps when you have a cast that includes Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, and Kevin Bacon – who gives us a whole new batch of actors to help us with 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
It was rumored that Jack Nicholson was talked about for the part of Nixon, which went to Frank Langella. He’s perfect in the part, and looks more like him than Anthony Hopkins did. I think it would’ve been weird for Nicholson to get the role for two reasons. I can’t imagine his voice having that deep baritone we think of when we hear Nixon (or more accurately, when we hear Nixon impersonations). Also, Nicholson was Colonel Jessep — the guy that Tom Cruise tried to get to admit something in A Few Good Men (spoiler alert: he did).
One of the most interesting scenes in the movie has Nixon, after a few too many drinks, calling Frost at his hotel. He was ready to head out for dinner and is blown away by this. They spent about 45 minutes on the phone, with Nixon talking about how they are both similar, and had rough childhoods. Yet the next day, Nixon doesn’t seem to recall anything about this conversation when Frost casually brings it up. Now, since Ron Howard has a reputation for making stuff up (it irritated me in A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man), I did some research and found out that this conversation never happened. It made me so mad I was really tempted to just give this movie an F. Seriously, if you’re making a movie about a real event, don’t create fictionalized stories to add drama or make us like/dislike a character more. For example, let’s take Cinderella Man. We would’ve rooted for Russell Crowe to win that big fight, yet they have to show Max Baer (who had killed two people in the ring), mouth off at a restaurant about how he’d sleep with the guys wife. And then the filmmakers wonder why the Baer family is upset with the way he was portrayed (fun fact: Max Bear Jr. was Jethro in Beverly Hillbillies). They didn’t show Baer giving money to one of the widows of the boxer he killed. Nah…why make us like the bad guy.
If it’s not interesting enough the way the real story went down, don’t make the movie. Or hell, just make a documentary about this, and we can see the actual interviews (which were 12 days, that Howard makes only 4 days to probably keep the story tighter).
I also found in researching this, that Nixon actually made a lot more money than this movie implies. He signed a deal to get a percentage of what Frost made from it. I’m guessing the gift of shoes at the end had to be fake, which really makes you wonder why in the world Ron Howard even tackles real life events. At this point, I have no reason to believe anything I saw in Apollo 13.
This is one of those rare movies where the close-ups actually are warranted. I’m guessing that, since most people say their biggest fear is public speaking, they’ll appreciate how nerve racking the whole experience can be. You have hot lights, cameras all around your head, and…when it comes to Nixon, TV is what sunk him in the early ‘60s in that debate with JFK. It was the first presidential debate to be televised.
The movie entertained me enough to give it a B, but if Ron Howard does another movie about real characters and fictionalizes this much – it’s getting an F no matter how entertained I was.