I´ve never really been a fan of Ron Howard. I grew up watching him, first as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, then later as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. And while his all-American appeal was winning, those characters belonged to a time and place of innocence as lost as paradise.
Howard’s segue into film, acting in American Graffiti and its sequel, maintained an everyman quality reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart minus what lay beneath — the sense of having seen more and even the willingness to have done something worth regretting.
The most significant transition for Howard came with his move behind the camera. He has taken the helm of breezy projects like Night Shift and Splash, shifted to more pedestrian, feel-good dramedies (Cocoon and Parenthood) before settling in as a polished mainstream storyteller (Backdraft, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man have been compiled in The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection from Universal Home Entertainment). Howard has earned the highest recognition of his peers — A Beautiful Mind ran away with Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Russell Crowe) and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly), but for all that glory, there’s still the sometimes nagging sense that Howard’s work hasn’t truly struck an emotional nerve.
His name, along with that of producing partner Brian Glazer, guarantees that top-flight talent will sign on and, in large part, carry the heavy weight in terms of stealing
into the hearts and minds of audiences. Despite the fact that he is well liked in the industry, Howard’s direction lacks substantive punch of respected names — Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee come to mind — who have generated powerful cultural timepieces.
Howard’s latest, Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan’s award-winning play (which he adapts for the screen) seems likely material for a measure of critical soul searching. The story behind the monumental television interviews between British journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) and a disgraced but defiant Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) presents Frost as a surrogate of sorts for Howard, since the journalist was a well-known talk-show host with a general gift for gab and celebrity but lacking credibility in the hard-hitting arena. The wounded Nixon remained a dangerous adversary eager to prove himself to be bigger than the scandal that drove him from The White House.
For contemporary audiences, the allure here is in the reflection the Nixon White House offers to the outgoing Bush administration with questions of abuse of power and the lasting stain on American (and global) politics. But to get caught up in that discussion leaves the compelling parallel between Frost and Howard unexplored.
Frost is a fabulous schmoozer, linked to actress Diahann Carroll, although it is the anxious striver that Sheen brings to the fore in the film’s quieter moments. Frost over-extends himself in order to secure the rights to the interview, and the mounting desperation prevents him from preparing for the actual interview sessions with Nixon. The majority of the prep work falls on Frost’s team, James Reston (Sam Rockwell), John Birton (Matthew Macfadyen) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), but in the end, the only thing that matters is the head-to-head with Nixon.
Langella and Sheen reprise their roles from the play, and Langella proves to be the formidable center of the adaptation, much as he apparently was during its stage run. His Nixon isn’t a simple impersonation of a man known for his famous tics; this is a performance of character that captures the full range of a too-familiar figure. The drama of the moment, especially the final interview where Nixon admits to the devious deeds and dirty dealings, is too heavily weighted to the more active former president. Frost is little more than a passive device, barely even a trigger in this high-stakes game of political roulette.
And so it seems, just as Frost wins by default, so too does Howard. Frost/Nixon’s engine is the performance of Langella, who is on an unparalleled run of success stretching back to his tour-de-force work in Starting Out in the Evening two years ago. He is a lion in winter, and Howard is wise to let him lord over the proceedings as he does.
But Howard lets another opportunity slip through his fingers to claim a hint of glory in his own right. He remains a curious footnote, even in his own continuing story. Grade: B