The material that makes up this particular piece of art represents one of the most unique challenges for me to write about. “Frost/Nixon” the film has just opened, was directed by Ron Howard and stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. If these actors are not household names of cinema, it may make a little more sense to learn that they originated the material on stage, the medium it was created for by writer Peter Morgan. It started in London and transferred to New York on Broadway. That was where I first saw it, in the summer of 2007.
So now I have the rare perspective of having seen the same actors performing the same material as the same characters on both the stage and screen. Which is better, you might reasonably inquire? That is what I wondered and still wonder.
In the journal I kept on that trip to New York City, I wrote to myself that the play did not quite have the power I had expected it to and that Michael Sheen, whose acting I had loved onscreen in 2006’s “The Queen,” made the fatal error of over-gesturing. He cycled through them over and over, and the performance rang of inexperience and actor trickery (something I know a little about myself, I will admit). But it was the play’s writing that most offended me. It made abundant use of one of the most tiresome theatrical conventions, in which a minor character continually broke the fourth wall to give us plot updates, usually during scene changes. Dreadful lines like, “We were about to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had!” were delivered with all the subtlety of machine gun fire next to your ear. Ouch.
It was to my immense surprise, therefore, that both Sheen and the entire supporting cast were handled so much better in the film. Sam Rockwell plays the character, James Reston, and his asides are translated into interview style, direct-addresses to the camera. Also wise is the decision to allow more than just Reston a voice. Both camps are represented, which also provides slightly more balance than the play gives. In the play, you feel perpetually off-center, because it is narrated by someone you care little about, and about a man kept always at a distance. By giving Nixon’s people more of a voice, it inflates the scope of the film, and raises more questions about how we may perceive Nixon himself by the end. And Sheen seems so much more comfortable on camera than onstage. His gestures are more contained, he trusts stillness more, and the movement he does choose is grounded in purpose and intention, instead of fear from the total exposure that is live theatre (I do not know if he was nervous, it could easily have been that I saw the evening show after a matinee. The man could simply have been tired).
But for all that, Ron Howard manages to do what he always does and that is to say that he makes a Ron Howard movie. I cannot quite put my finger on the problem, except to say that his films have a way, in my opinion, of overlooking the acting and story that they are supposed to be capturing. There is something inherently bulky and bloated about the way his shots are arranged, especially now. My favorite film of his is, hands down, “Apollo 13,” because unlike most of his films, it feels authentic. But in movies like “Cinderella Man” and even a movie I mostly like, “A Beautiful Mind” there seems a lack of specificity to his movies and the way he captures performances.
And speaking of performances, Frank Langella. It’s a very good performance in the film. You can tell that Langella knows his character; is his character. It is everything that good acting should be. And yet. As solid as his big moments were in the film, they were dynamic on the stage. He has a monologue at the end, in which he is making his apology. Howard shoots it tight, he bludgeons us with closeup, closeup, closeup. It still works, it’s still effective, but on stage! Oh, on stage, Langella’s voice was barely a whisper, like he was afraid to say the words too loudly. The distance drew us in all the more. It was mesmerizing. It was crystal clear, I caught every single word, even from nearly the back of the theatre. The crowd was so completely silent. There was no music underscoring it. Just two men in chairs, one speaking, one listening. Ladies and Gentlemen… Theatre.
So how do you decide which is better, when more people are better in the film, but the lead actor is better on stage? Which is the better way to view a piece of dramatic art? IS there a better way, or maybe just a different way? Since you obviously can’t go back in time and see the play, you should do yourself a favor and see the film. For it’s flaws, it is inherently fascinating subject matter; very similar in fact, to Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk,” another true story, in which knowing the ending actually increases the effectiveness of the film.