Like many Americans, actor-director Ron Howard had very mixed feelings about Richard Nixon in the 1970s—and directing Frost/Nixon, the new film about the disgraced president’s series of TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, hasn’t clarified things for him much.
“On one hand, back in 1977 I was of draft age, and Nixon had suspended the draft, so I liked him for that,” says Howard. “On the other hand, I felt he probably prolonged our time [in Vietnam]. I questioned him on social issues, and of course I felt utterly betrayed by Watergate.”
The interviews first focused on Nixon’s triumphs, including relations with China, and Howard recalls that Nixon “acquitted himself so brilliantly—I was struck by how knowledgeable a statesman he was. And I started to shift into a mode of acceptance.” Then came the segment in which Nixon acknowledged at least some responsibility for the Watergate cover-up. “I remember feeling that a man can be two things,” says Howard. “He can be talented and effective, and he can also be a betrayer of your trust. And one thing doesn’t cancel out the other.”
Fresh from directing the adventure thriller The Da Vinci Code, Oscar-winner Howard—and, yes, it’s still okay to remember him as Opie on TV’s The Andy Griffith Show—took on a decidedly more focused project in Frost/Nixon. Based on the 2007 Broadway play by Peter Morgan, it stars Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. At first the dialogue-heavy, action-light concept didn’t seem like the ideal movie, but Howard drew from two of his most successful films: Apollo 13 and the boxing biopic Cinderella Man.
“I put to use the intensity generated in tight corners in Apollo 13 and the flat-out combat of Cinderella Man,” he says. “When I saw the play on Broadway I was caught off-guard by the intensity of the experience. That night I told my agent, ‘I will commit to making this my next movie.’”