“The Da Vinci Code” (2006)
So with this assessment/re-assessment, we’d love to be able to go against conventional wisdom and state with brio that in fact Howard’s 2005 adaptation of the Dan Brown phenomenon is a misunderstood masterpiece. But we can’t because it’s really, really bad. The sudden self-seriousness that had crept into Howard’s post-Oscar films just doesn’t work when applied to something as silly as “The Da Vinci Code” and makes us wonder what coulda been. If not an ‘Indiana Jones’ style adventure, then at least a “National Treasure”-style romp, but in Howard's hands the thriller is a really super dull trudge through a dreary nightime Paris that goes on for two and half excruciating hours. Tom Hanks, usually so effortlessly watchable, looks deeply uncomfortable here in his bad wig, burdened with a role that mostly requires him to squint at things in passageways—even Hanks, who can create a sympathetic character out of a shipwrecked guy with a volleyball for a best friend, can’t find anything in Robert Langdon to make him an actual character. But with the book having found an audience even among people who make it a point of pride not to read books, the potential market for this thing was simply massive, and with “Cinderella Man” underperforming and “The Missing” a rare commercial flop for Howard, he was in need of a box office hit. Undeserving as it was, “The Da Vinci Code” proved just that, pulling in $758m worldwide, more than justifying Howard’s approach, his initial $125m budget and of course it prompted a sequel. “Angels & Demons” would come along three short years later, still pretty awful but the rare sequel that improves on the original, if only because the original was so poor. From the point of view of Howard’s career, however, far more interesting was the film that came in between…
Just when you think you can write Howard off as one particular thing, he turns around and does another. And so, sandwiched between soulless moneymakers “The Da Vinci Code” and sequel “Angels and Demons” came “Frost/Nixon,” a retelling of the famous interview between then-young gun British reporter David Frost and disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. Maybe the only ever film to be based on a play which was itself based on a television interview, “Frost/Nixon” is scripted by the play’s author Peter Morgan and stars Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella in a terrifically bellicose performance as Nixon. The film lovingly recreates the period, as Howard has done so well on various occasions, and despite the potential worthiness of the subject, it feels like here Howard has more fun than he’s had in quite a while, nailing the breezier aspects of the story and doing a good job of expanding it to feel more filmic, abetted by a stacked supporting cast including Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Matthew MacFayden, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. It’s not a wholehearted home run—there is a slack portion in the middle when we should be ramping up to the finale, but mostly this is Howard taking on intelligent, but potentially unappealing material and making something compelling, fluid and entertaining out of it, without entirely dumbing it down. Nominated for five Oscars (and Hans Zimmer’s excellent but un-nominated score also deserves a shout out), the film really earns its stripes in the bravura final portion of the interview, where the verbal sparring escalates to an all-out, winner-takes-all boxing match, resulting in a total psychological K.O. If often Howard is accused of going for rather predictable dramatic beats in rather obvious vehicles, “Frost/Nixon” is among the best examples of his ability to find real, earned drama in less expected places too.
Howard has somewhat maintained that kind of see-saw rhythm since “Frost/Nixon” too, with “Angels & Demons” following the year after and then unappealing adultery comedy “The Dilemma” in 2011 proving less than illustrious efforts, but “Rush” bouncing the director back into our good books again. He’s also got music documentary “Made in America,” chronicling Jay-Z’s festival of the same name, due out next month, before he reteams with “Rush” star Chris Hemsworth for briny Herman Melville-inspired “In the Heart of the Sea.” He also possibly has an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book" and the JJ Abrams-produced "All I've Got" slated but they're likely a way off if they're happening at all as, sadly, after 'Heart of the Sea' the pendulum will probably swing back again: “Inferno” the next infernal Dan Brown adaptation is due to arrive in December 2015. But of course there’s a lot more to Howard than feature directing—he has been doing sterling work as executive producer and also the omniscient narrator on “Arrested Development” through the years, in addition to his many other TV and movie producing gigs as co-chairman, with longtime collaborator Brian Grazer, of the hugely busy and productive Imagine Entertainment. Developing projects that have piqued our interest there include Stephen King adaptation “The Dark Tower” which, last we heard was potentially being eyed by Netflix, and a “Friday Night Lights” movie that Howard and Grazer controversially announced they may go the crowdfunding route to be get made.
So what do you think, is it time we reclaim Howard from his journeyman reputation, or does he deserve no better? Sound off below. - Jessica Kiang and Rodrigo Perez