03 February 2009
In a way, it takes a very particular set of circumstances and artists to put out a good movie that reliess completely in dialogue. Maybe that's why Frost/Nixon was originally a play. Now, in this visual dimension, it achieves much of the same excitement and tension without becoming a necessarily great film. It's satisfying in a historical and dramaturgical way, but not really cinematically.
Theatre, of course, has a visual dimension. But it also has the luxury of being able to rely on dialogue in a way that film can't. Theatre, as I'm generally realizing, has much in common with law proceedings based on their root in ancient Greece. Ancient rhetoric had much in common with ancient drama, and vice versa. But film has to extend beyond the words (if it has to use them at all) and show us something. And because this source material is entirely reliant on dialogue, it is here where Ron Howard's skills almost fail him.
I did say skills. He has them. A lot of people love to tear down Ron Howard, but I think that's mostly a matter of audience. Ron Howard's audience is mostly made up of older people. In his long career in the business, he's more familiar with their style than the one of the new generation. Now there's nothing wrong with knowing your audience, and nothing wrong with having an older audience. It's just simply a matter of mismatched material.
Howard's never out to dazzle us with his skills. He maintains a quiet technique of solid storytelling and a balance between overt artistry and subtlety. But often he has material that is well-suited to his skills. Here, he lacks the style to really give the material its punch.
That's not to say the results are all bad. They're in fact quite-good. It's just not exactly great filmmaking. The confronation between the titular characters is very interesting to watch. I'd think that for a generation that remembers the Nixon era it would be even more poignant than it was for me. The acting is superb, but without it the film would be nothing. It's a solid film, and easily communicates its purpose. It's good in many regards. Just not great. Just not one-of-the-five-best-pictures-of-the-year great. I'm bitter.