Lately, the movies have been helping me catch up on some of the dramas that I missed on Broadway. Doubt was one. I had never seen the play live, but I was thoroughly captivated by John Patrick Shanley's film adaptation. (See my review here.)
Another play I missed on stage was Frost/Nixon. But whereas I had been looking forward to the movie version of "Doubt," I was less eager about the film of "Frost/Nixon." The reason: director Ron Howard, who has never been my favorite. His "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was an abomination before God and man, and "The Paper," "Cocoon," and "Backdraft" were also atrocious, IMHO.
In fairness, I hear good things about "A Beautiful Mind," but I have no intention of seeing it, mostly because Russell Crowe makes me peevish. And "Apollo 13" just never really appealed to me, although it's apparently a decent flick as well. The only Ron Howard movie I've enjoyed is "Parenthood," but even then it was only really for the terrific performances, particularly that of the wonderful Dianne Wiest.
So it was with great reservation that I took in "Frost/Nixon," but I'm happy to report that I genuinely enjoyed the movie. Howard seems to have developed as a filmmaker, although not quite to the point where I'd consider him a master, merely competent. For the most part, he eschews the hokey, Capraesque touches that mar much of his previous work, with a few groan-worthy exceptions. With the able assistance of Peter Morgan, who crafted the screenplay for "Frost/Nixon" from his original play, Howard creates here a terrific sense of time and place, providing just enough context to bring the drama alive.
There's been a lot of discussion as to the historical accuracy of the play and the movie. One major criticism has focused on the fictitious phone call the Richard Nixon makes to Frost shortly before the final TV interview. I really didn't have a problem with it. The call provides dramatic impetus for Frost to get off his ass and nail this mother to the wall. Perhaps because the events are relatively recent, people have more of a problem with this sort of dramatic device. But when you think of other historical plays -- A Man for All Seasons, say, or The Crucible -- there's even more artifice involved, since with "Frost/Nixon," we at least have the actual interviews and historical documents to compare it to, should anyone be so moved.
The main attraction of "Frost/Nixon" ultimately lies in its two central performances. Of course, there's Frank Langella who friggin' knocks it out of the park as Nixon. The true wonder of Langella is that he handles dramatic and comedic roles with equal aplomb. I had the privilege of seeing Langella as Garry Essendine in the most recent revival of Noel Coward's Present Laughter, and it was an absolute tour de force. Langella brings dimension and credibility to the role of Nixon, shedding light on both the pathos and the bluster of this loathsome and enigmatic man.
But the real revelation for me was Michael Sheen as David Frost. With all due respect to Langella, Frost is the more challenging role here, because he starts out as such a superficial cypher. Sheen imbues the playboy character with great brio, then gradually reveals the layers and complexity behind a man who has just as much to win or lose from this battle of wills as Nixon does. Sheen clearly conveyed the sense that this guy starts out way over his head, only to segue into the requisite ferocity for taking this tarnished titan down.
So, overall, it's a great season for plays on screen, and I highly recommend both "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon." And we also have the film adaptation of August: Osage County to look forward to, although it looks like we're going to have to wait until at least 2011 to see it.