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February 8, 2009

4

Movie Review – Frost/Nixon (2008)

by TOM NIXON

Very contrived, very hammy, very Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon is the year’s mindlessly entertaining underdog sports blockbuster thinly disguised as political biopic. Guiding you through the action with the most condescending framing device available (a host of explicatory documentary-style interview segments), it milks every last drop of drama out of its subject without staking a single claim to profundity. In that way it’s hard to dislike, and impossible to respect – after all, it sure as hell doesn’t respect you.

Based on screenwriter Peter Morgan’s own play, the film dramatizes the famous sort-of-revelatory interviews between prancing English talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) and disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). It’s pure box office showdown, complete with lingering reaction close-ups, soundbites galore and a tense score ripped out of some ‘90s thriller.

Nixon’s played as a sad-eyed has-been gasping for a place back in the limelight, doddering around his home like a nearly broken man, making bad jokes to his doting adviser Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), acquiring the audience’s sympathy and distrust in equal measure. Langella’s awkwardly regal portrayal is captivating if not always accurate; booming and proud, yet hunched and full of unconvincing bravado, barely contained frustration and shame. Shame, perhaps, at being in a movie so unworthy of his talents; the clunkily directed moment of revelation demonstrates the gulf acutely.

Howard’s implication is that Frost has those same qualities; Sheen depicts him as suave and pompous veiling an undercarriage of loss and yearning. He has his coaches—uh, I mean advisors, too; research team James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and entirely disposable lover Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall). In a drunken phone call Nixon suggests to Frost that both men’s relentless drive for success springs from an endless need to defy the snobs who belittle them. Such curiosities might’ve bristled with ambiguity and implication under a better director; in this bizarre scene they come off as gratuitous conjecture. You sense that Howard feels restricted by the historical basis of his subject matter; ideally he wants to build a kindred relationship between the two men, but the interviews don’t really cater for it.

The film’s most unfortunate moment sees Reston criticizing in a summary interview the reductive powers of television, a claim scarily lacking in irony considering the way Howard has essentially compressed the Frost/Nixon interviews into a Rocky sequel. It’s the perfect self-criticism from a film which sensationally inflates the significance of its subject matter (we’re not witness to the Nixon saga after all, only the public’s comparatively trivial postmortem), yet sandpapers every complex and challenging element, preferring cheap thrills, well-worn clichés and a few feeble attempts at gravitas. It probably shouldn’t have left the stage.

1 1/2 stars


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rishi
    Feb 13 2009

    I’m not going to argue that this is a great film, because it’s not. I’m also not going to defend Ron Howard – I think A Beautiful Mind is the worst film to win Best Picture at the Oscars in the last decade.

    But I do think you’re giving the film less credit than it deserves. I think Langella’s performance is superb, and despite the fact that the interview scenes felt contrived, it still kept me drawn to the screen. I think the real fault of the film is that it should have embraced the surreality of the situation more. Ron Howard is not really known as a risk-taker though.

  2. Tom
    Feb 13 2009

    i don’t really disagree, but at the same time i’m very intolerant of films that don’t challenge or take risks (you might find my rating of ‘milk’ similarly harsh – i’m definitely in the minority on that one). that kind of safety is the antithesis of what i look for in cinema.

    maybe the film warranted an extra half star for langella alone though.

  3. Rishi
    Feb 13 2009

    I definitely see your point, Tom. My favorite films are usually ones that surprise and challenge me, but I am occasionally willing to sit back and just be entertained.

    Yes, as you expected, I did like Milk more than you did.

  4. Helen
    Feb 17 2009

    The faux-documentary interview snippets and occasional lapses into jittery handheld camerawork really bugged me. Langella and Sheen are teriffic, though. They’re so good in the final interview that I was almost seduced into thinking this was a good movie. Then the film cut immediately to the Reston speech – what you aptly describe as its most unfortunate moment – and I was snapped back to reality. The performances deserved a better showcase.

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