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It’s a cliché at this point to say that I’m not a very big fan of Ron Howard’s well received filmography, but here it is anyway. Howard’s films are largely just as generic and unassuming as Bret Ratner or John Turtletaub’s films, and I honestly respect shlock-miesters like Michael Bay more for at least developing a personality on film. The story behind David Frost’s notorious Richard Nixon interview was not, on paper, a subject I was looking forward to the capably bland director adapting. The film’s Oscar nominations appeared to me to be related to the Academy’s unfounded love of all things Howard, and I wrote Frost/Nixon off without seeing it. I was wrong, and recommend the film to Howard’s other detractors as proof of something more going on beneath that balding, formerly red haired dome.

Frost/Nixon
It takes almost forty minutes for the film to hit the juicy stuff, but once Frost’s writers start gathering their research the fever pitch starts, and from that moment things are pretty intense, and generally Oscar worthy. Howard’s best film up until this point (and probably still) was Apollo 13, which ran white hot on performances and suspense. More interestingly, and impressively, the suspense Howard developed came out of a true story to which the entire audience knew the final outcome. The Apollo 13 event was pretty spectacular so the achievement isn’t wholly incredible, but it’s a definitive high point for the director, and there are easy comparisons to make between that film and this one. Less of the audience likely knows the story of Frost’s Nixon interview, so the suspense isn’t as roughly earned, but the events are much less visceral, so Howard earns a few more points. The forty-minute build is a problem, but pretty easily forgotten.

Past the forty minutes things are quite tight, and the intercut faux-interview segments rarely hurt the pacing (the film earns its editorial Oscar nomination). Howard’s un-Howard like handheld camera choices are a phenomenal touch simply because the subject matter is stage based. The other big stage play based feature of 2008, Doubt, took the opposite approach of shooting handsome establishing shots, which worked fine for the material, but had Howard shot Frost/Nixon in this fashion the audience likely wouldn’t become as engaged. The director’s lack of distinctive style comes as a relief for the first time in his career, and we’re able to appreciate the material on its own merits. Too bad he’s going back to adapting airport paperbacks.

Frost/Nixon
The material’s most intriguing moment is most thankfully bereft of the additional faux-interview information, leaving things as ambiguous and uncannily disturbing as needed. Why would Nixon call Frost and egg him on? Why would he basically dare Frost to take him down following a near shut-out? Despite expectations Howard and company offer no distinctive answers. It really is the moment that pushes the movie over the edge to greatness, and the moment where I finally recognized all the admiration for Frank Langella’s performance, which up until then was merely intuitive, not exactly thrilling, especially compared to Anthony Hopkins’ previous performance as the often despised statesman. Frankly I found Langella’s performance dully impressionistic for most of the movie, and was more impressed with the naturalistic performances from the rest of the cast. But that’s one thing we’ve come to expect out of even Ron Howard’s worst films—good casting, and good actor’s direction.

Video


Frost/Nixon looks more like a Sidney Lumet film than a Ron Howard film. The camera is handheld and bobbing, the lighting is largely source based, and the camera placement is often voyeuristic. The contrast is pretty sharp, but otherwise things look pretty natural. Colours aren’t muted, but aren’t saturated by any means either. The look of 1970s America is alive and well in the film, including all the brown and deep blue suits, all that wooden panelling, and everything looks clear as day. The deep blacks overwhelm the compositions in a few places, but are flawless on the print. The darkest sequences are a bit noisy, but not outstandingly so, and the separation of elements is sharp. Between the more naturalistic and higher contrast segments that make up the majority of the film are scenes of the actors playing their characters as post-event interview subjects. These scenes are softer, less detailed, and the colours are washed out. All the rich browns and warm flesh tones are tinted light blue. The contrast of the two styles is effective without being jarring.

Frost/Nixon

Audio


Frost/Nixon is another largely centred mix from another dialogue centric motion picture for me. The centre channel and the dialogue are positively perfect, distortion free, and quite consistent, but this isn’t a surprise. There really isn’t a lot to say about the rest of the track besides that it’s serviceable. The biggest and best audio moment in the mix is a bursting bulb at about the one hour and five minute mark, which works as a painful shock as it shatters out of the right stereo channel. Besides this and a few meagre crowd shots and echoes the rear and stereo channels are relatively bare. Hanz Zimmer is kind of on autopilot (frankly he could’ve easily recorded the whole thing himself in his garage before delivering it), but Howard uses it well as a continuous undercurrent to the developing pace and sharp editing. This score is low on the track, and mostly delegated to the stereo channels, with an echo track in the rear.

Extras


Blu-ray fans with better than Profile 1.0 players have two U-Control options to look forward to. These are listed as PiP interviews, and ‘The Nixon Chronicles’. I couldn’t get either of these to work. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don’t. Fortunately, from what I’ve read, it seems that the PiP information is all available elsewhere on the disc, in the form of the featurettes.

Ron Howard offers up a decent commentary track that is at times quite informative and which rarely lets up. The most important aspects of the track for me are Howard’s comparisons to the original play, which I haven’t seen, and the actual events. The adaptation process is quite intriguing, but Howard’s descriptions of technical production and his love of his actors are a bit dull, even if he does try his best.

From the commentary we move onto the deleted and extended scenes (thirty minutes), which are the only non-HD extras. Several of these scenes are re-enactments of stuff that takes place before the interview is even discussed, and was thankfully cut, as it would’ve stood alongside the somewhat dull first forty minutes. Strangely these scenes are presented in 1.85:1 rather than 2.35:1.

Frost/Nixon
‘Discovering Secrets’ (thirteen minutes) looks behind the scenes of the real event, which the real life Frost compares to some of the stranger events in the movie. One kind of assumes that the strange moments of small talk are too strange to not be true, but it’s still interesting to have things verified. Also covered are aspects of the research that went into the film, the process of filming on location with actual props from the Nixon Library, and Nixon himself. Interesting stuff, but I crave more information about the actual event.

‘The Making of Frost/Nixon]’ (twenty-three minutes) doesn’t quench that informational thirst, but is a decent featurette that doesn’t feature all the usual EPK shortcomings. It’s a little fluffy in its approach, and does seem a bit like an elongated ad, but the inception history is interesting stuff, as are the actors’ preparations. There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage crammed between the interviews and film footage, and costume and production design information is tacked onto the end of things.

‘The Real Interview’ (eight minutes) is more like it, covering the actual event from the point of view of the cast and crew. Seeing the actual footage is all I wanted, especially since it’s made out of the money shots, and I don’t think I have the patience to sit through the entire interview (which is available on DVD). Unfortunately things defer back to the making of the film, begging the question—why not just have one long documentary?

‘The Nixon Library’ (six minutes) wraps things up. This short featurette concerns the history of the library/museum that was instrumental in the film’s production, and is the only feature that doesn’t concern itself with the movie very much.

Frost/Nixon

Overall


Frost/Nixon, like Apollo 13, overcomes the bland shortcomings of director Ron Howard’s other films, and is a solid piece of film entertainment. The film’s best picture Oscar nomination was not deserved, but its editing nomination was right on, and the cast is uniformly terrific. The Blu-ray looks and sounds passable, if not spectacular, and features some decent extras that mostly act to whet the appetite for more real life information. If you’ve got six hours to spare make yourself a double feature with Oliver Stone’s underrated Nixon, also available on Blu-ray disc.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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