It is almost pointless calling Frost/Nixon a Ron Howard film. After The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind and The Grinch (sigh) “Ron Howard” has come to stand for workman-like MOR Oscar-bait: hardly the makings of a distinctive auteur. Frost/Nixon is really the work of Peter Morgan, the writer of the film’s screenplay and the original stageplay on which the film was based. Peter Morgan seems to have carved a niche out for himself of creating scripts that speculate on important political figures’ private lives during momentous historical moments. In Frost/Nixon, the momentous event is an interview that Nixon agreed to give to David Frost following his resignation from office. For Nixon, the interview is a chance to repair his legacy. For Frost, a UK lightweight entertainment television host, this is a chance to achieve respect and success stateside. For the rest of the world, the interview is a chance to get the admission of guilt and wrongdoing over Watergate, Vietnam and Cambodia that they had been deprived of. But as in The Queen, Peter Morgan exploits the dramatic and intellectual opportunities of the premise by breaking one of the central tenets of screenwriting:
“Show. Don’t tell.”
The Queen despite being finely acted was a perfect example of the wrong way to approach screenwriting. For Peter Morgan, dialogue is merely an excuse to write neatly constructed topic sentences that are less about character motivation than about showing the audience how intelligent Peter Morgan is.
Some examples from The Queen:
Prime Minister, I understand how `difficult’ her behaviour must seem to you..how `unhelpful’..but try to see it from her perspective..(searches for right words)She’s been brought up to believe its God’s will that she is who she is.
Peter Morgan often has an interesting or insightful point to make about the people he writes about but rather than dramatise the point, he has one of his characters simply make his point.
He commits the same sin in a later scene:
You know when you get it wrong, you REALLY get it wrong. (beat) That woman has given her whole life in service to her people – fifty years doing a job she NEVER wanted – a job she watched kill her father. She’s executed it with dignity, honour and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish- and now we line up baying for her blood – why? Because she’s struggling to lead the world in mourning for a woman who threw everything she offered back in her face, and who seemed, in the last few years, to be committed twenty-four seven to destroy everything she holds dear.
Again it’s just weird how Tony Blair provides insight into the Queen by perfectly contextualising her actions with specific historical anecdotes. It’s a genuinely interesting point that Peter Morgan is making here but its hardly an artful or cinematic way to express it.
In Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan becomes more blatant about breaking the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule by including awkward inserts into the film in which the characters address the camera, making Frost/Nixon something of a mockumentary. This makes a bit of sense for Morgan: People are generally more likely to speak in topic sentences during an interview. But it does feel tacked on.
Peter Morgan scripts also have weird “wikipedia” moments: contrived scenes which seem to exist purely to show the audience how clever Morgan is for having discovered some weird trivia about his subject.
In The Queen, the wikipedia moment is when the Queen becomes stranded after her car breaks down and, telephoning for help, she explains in detail what is wrong with her vehicle:
Are you sure, Ma’am?
Yes, perfectly. The front one, not the rear. I’ve lost the four-wheel drive. You forget I worked as a mechanic in the war.
It’s an awkward line of dialogue. Why is she being so specific about the mechanical malfunction? Wouldn’t her specificity have been enough to remind the Head Ghillie (whatever that is) that the Queen is an ex-mechanic? The exchange makes no sense but it does show that Peter Morgan is a whiz with Google.
In Frost/Nixon, all of Peter Morgan’s writing weaknesses come to a head at the dramatic apex of the film when Nixon drunk dials Frost before the interview session on the subject of Watergate. Nixon has read a profile of Frost and tells him that they are both motivated by a desire to transcend their humble backgrounds and prove themselves to the elite upper classes. He knows this because he has read that Frost came from humble beginnings and won a place at Cambridge. This is a hopelessly contrived scene, getting Nixon drunk so he can spout dialogue which is remarkably uncharacteristic, uncharacteric because it is clearly not Nixon speaking the words but Peter Morgan expressing his personal topic sentences through Nixon. It’s also a blatant wikipedia moment.
The history/politics junkie in me loves Peter Morgan and his screenplays. He’s obviously an intelligent man with fine research skills. He’d make a great essayist but he’s far from a great screenwriter.
WATCH THIS FILM WITH:
Walk Hard (Jake Kasdan, 2007)
There are many ludicrous aspects about Frost/Nixon that stems from the film being a historical Oscar-bait film: Actors wearing silly wigs to impersonate real-life people, inserting famous people into the script to gain legitimacy and various signifiers overselling the point that the period represented is an Important Historical Turning Point. These are all parodied very well in the criminally under-rated Walk Hard. This film captures the ludicrous pomposity of the biopic and after watching it, you’ll find it hard to take Frost/Nixon very seriously. The moment to savour in the clip below is at 0.26 seconds when Dewey Cox is talking to Buddy Holly played by Frankie Muniz. Even though they are having a normal conversation, they say the words “Buddy Holly” over and over again to ram into the audience’s head that they are watching an Important Scene with an Important Historical Figure.