Dec 31, 2008
Great drama is among the most advanced and challenging forms of storytelling. Sadly the glory days of drama in worldwide entertainment are long gone. Witness the highly acclaimed Frost/Nixon, the latest example of “much ado about nothing” in the drama form.
Frost/Nixon seems to have many of the elements that make up an excellent dramatic script, most especially the relationship between the hero and the main opponent. From the title itself, we can tell that writer Peter Morgan understands one of the first rules of great storytelling, which is that the hero is only as good as the person he fights. The opposition here between Frost and Nixon promises to be a heavyweight fight, between the charming, media-savvy English interviewer and the lying, bitter, anti-media American ex-President.
In fact, what we get is the most hollow, limp opposition I can remember. Sure there’s plenty of conflict. Frost has to fight not only Nixon and his chief handler, but also his own teammates who push him to be harder on the ex-President.
So why does this drama disappear into thin air when you try to engage it? The reason has to do with what’s really at stake in a drama. Good drama explores a moral issue in depth. And this moral issue has to be important, meaning that it has to affect people’s lives deeply.
At first glance, Frost/Nixon seems to deal with a huge moral issue: the most powerful man in the world abuses his power, attacks the Constitution and then creates an elaborate cover-up to hide his crimes and retain power. That would be the moral issue at stake if the film tracked Nixon and the events of the Watergate scandal.
But this film is about Nixon talking about Watergate. Which is why we get so much fake drama about how Frost has his own money on the line, how he has a reputation as a lightweight, how Nixon is a big, bad wolf, how Frost and Nixon are both trying to make a comeback and only one of them can succeed, etc. This is all puff and nonsense.
Break the film down structurally and you realize that Frost/Nixon is a film with 90 minutes of smoke-and-mirrors set-up for 5 minutes of payoff. And what is the payoff? Nixon admits he made a mistake and let down the American people. Whoa. What a revelation. Look all you want for a deep exploration of a major moral issue. You won’t find one.
The only reason this is surprising is that the actual Frost/Nixon interviews happened so long ago. Looking back at when the interviews were shown on television, I recall I watched them sporadically. And why was I not engrossed by this supposedly momentous landmark of television history? Because it was a long, crashing bore, endless hours of bloviating for the 5 minutes of payoff we get at the end of this film.
One reviewer has called this film “Ron Howard’s most mature work to date.” Please. That’s wrong on at least two counts. First, it’s another example of the sheer idiocy of the auteur theory. Ron Howard has relatively little to do with the success or failure of this drama. It’s all about the script, the play, the workings of the drama from the inside. Second, this is not good drama. It’s what is sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as the “well-made play.” Looks good on the gloss. But it’s hollow drama in the theater. And it’s hollow on film.
Which begs the question, why all the acclaim? We could blame it on the old excuse: you can fool all of the people some of the time. But the real reason for the hoopla is the virtual disappearance of the drama form in Hollywood film. Movies like Frost/Nixon, Doubt, and Revolutionary Road come out at the end of the year, at awards time, and because they have the audacity to address adult issues, reviewers, who are used to watching cartoons, are so shocked they call these films brilliant.
Sure we might all want to have the success of these dramatists. But don’t be fooled. If you want to write drama, a dying form, you can’t get away with smoke and mirrors. You have to have real substance. And you have to know how express that substance through a building conflict between two virtually equal sides. Master that and reviewers will call you brilliant too. And you’ll earn it.