“A boxing match with words” was the thinking behind Peter Morgan’s stage dramatisation of David Frost’s now-legendary interviews with a post-Watergate Richard Nixon. And with the Best Picture Oscar nomination that followed the screen version of the play, there’s plenty of evidence that Morgan succeeded in his quest. Certainly the third act of the filmed version is gripping drama, even though there’s a chance that the vast majority of the audience will know what happened next. But so conclusively do Michael Sheen as Frost and especially Frank Langella as Nixon inhabit their roles that it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off the screen.
Sadly, though, in spite of a superb final third, the film is still some way short of Best Picture nomination material, no matter how many certificates the Academy sent in its direction. The build up to the interview itself is played in, inevitably, quite a Hollywood-ised fashion, albeit granted with good semblance of truth to it.
Nixon is portrayed as the toughest of tough nuts to crack, surrounded by a team of experts who nip any problems in the bud on his behalf. Frost, meanwhile, comes across for good chunks as a borderline bumbling incompetent. And while the simplifying of the characteristics is the essential ingredient for a political take on Rocky, it does dilute the film’s ultimate impact.
Director Ron Howard isn’t a marvellous help, either. I quite like Ron Howard, and he does a perfectly effective job of getting the material onto the screen. But you just wonder, as some have suggested, how someone like George Clooney might have used the same material?
What’s in much less doubt is the quality of the two leads, though. In particular, Frank Langella is quite brilliant, and Sheen is an excellent foil for him. The film is, thus, understandably at its best when the two are engaged in their seated jousting, and Langella can feel hard done by that his performance only got a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and not the golden statue itself.
Grumbles aside, Frost/Nixon is still a compelling film, and when it finally catches fire, it’s quite outstanding. It just takes quite a long time to do so.
The Blu-ray comes with a decent selection of extras, albeit with a frustrating omission or two. Given that Sir David Frost contributes to some of the documentary material of the disc, it’s a missed opportunity to fail to get a commentary track off him. You can’t help feeling that it would have been fascinating to hear what the subject of the film had to say about it right the way through, and what insights he could have offered. As it stands, it’s good to have Frost in the extras, but more from him would have been massively welcomed.
That said, Ron Howard’s commentary, the only track on the disc, is an interesting one, and the man clearly knows his onions. He’s then followed by a solid making of documentary that runs to over 20 minutes. The main contributors to the film offer talking heads here, and BBC employees of a certain vintage will no doubt be thrilled to see John Birt pop in there too. There are one or two interesting anecdotes, too, not least that Frank Langella wanted to be called Mr President on the set, right up and til – but not necessarily including – the last day of shooting.
Discovering Secrets, the next featurette, brings together the people portrayed in the film, and this is where David Frost pops in. More of this would have been appreciated, and a far longer segment on the original interview would have enhanced the disc, too. As it is, it’s dealt with in a brief featurette of less than ten minutes. That’s a disappointment.
The disc also features a brief look at the Nixon library, and a good quantity of generally unremarkable deleted scenes.
It’s a solid collection of extra features, but there’s little doubt that there’s plenty of ceiling room for more. Sadly, the really meaty stuff will no doubt be saved for some form of ultimate edition at some point in the future.
Finally, a quick word on the Blu-ray presentation. A fast-moving blockbuster this isn’t, but the mix of footage used in the film comes across sharply enough in a fine visual presentation. Likewise, the audio track doesn’t have much to work with, but it’s a pinpoint surround mix, that makes much of what it has to present.
The frustration remains though that a good, solid collection of extra features could have been so much better. It’s hard to argue that you’re being short-changed with what you get, but there’s still a wealth more of the back story to the extraordinary interview that it would have been fascinating to see explored.
Next time, eh?
The Film:The Disc: