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Parting Shots: FROST/NIXON

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Universal)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008


Frost/Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
(Universal)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

With such violent, relatively offbeat fare as No Country For Old Men and The Departed snaring recent Best Picture Oscars, it’s become a hair lazy to condemn prestigious middlebrow melodrama as “Oscar bait.” The “crime” of Gump over Quentin in 1994 has been adequately rectified, and it now takes a savvier cynic to foretell which contestant will win the sweepstakes. So another golden-toned Ron Howard period piece should be viewed credulously, or only with inevitable prejudice carried over from past inoffensive mediocrities. He was once able to spin the story of a racist mathematician into a ludicrous love story/spy thriller hybrid (and Academy gold) by whitewashing the unpleasantness, but with Frost/Nixon you get the feeling that he just wanted a go at excellent source material.

The substance was ripe. In 1977, English journalist/talk show host David Frost saw the opportunity for an enormous ratings and prestige grab in an exclusive interview with disgraced ex-President Nixon. The flamboyant Frost’s struggle for credibility combined with Nixon’s conflicted desire to save face and clear the air proved a fertile locus of drama for Morgan, whose play was a massive success on Broadway. The interview special itself can’t have had the epic significance that the play and movie have lent it, but the foreground character study is precise. The leavening presence is Michael Sheen’s Frost. Reusing his foppish, Tony Blair mugging from the Morgan-written The Queen, his David is all sucked-in chin and perpetually befuddled eyebrows. He has something of Francois Truffaut’s onscreen lovability — an adult child with unshakeable vigor. You never feel like you get to know Frost (as you can never know Nixon), but you’re never unhappy to be around him. Sheen carries the picture.

All Howard needed to do was point the cameras at Sheen and the also-excellent Frank Langella, but he can’t help muddying things. Additional interviews, told at the camera The Office-style to an unseen interviewer years after 1977, orbit the naturally compelling Frost/Nixon talks. These expository snippets from Frost researchers James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), as well as Nixon aides like Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and others are the most clumsily handled and ugly (washed out grey-greens) passages in the movie. It is typical of Howard to assume that an audience needs constant contextualizing. Soon after Brennan interrupts Nixon as the President struggles to answer a direct question about Watergate involvement, the scene cuts to an after-the-fact Brennan explaining why he broke it up. This might add another Jenga piece of insight, but it both cheapens the drama’s climax and insults the audience’s ability to intuit character motivations. Rockwell’s Reston is the liberal firebrand of the research team. He is elated by Frost’s perceived “victory” during the final day of interviews, but has also been humbled by Nixon’s cunning and erudition. That’s not apparent in his awful narrative monologue at the end, though, when he gives a smug “and as for Richard Nixon!” update on the latter’s eventual reputation (summed up by the -gate suffix phenomenon). Despite his crimes, Richard Nixon surely deserves better than an Animal House "Where Are They Now" epilogue.

That Frost/Nixon would “humanize” the former president was a foregone conclusion. Like most dramatists who have examined him, Morgan is more interested in the contradictions and sympathetic failings than in any redundant takedown. Langella’s Nixon is consistently the funniest guy in the room here. When he tells Frost to marry his new girlfriend (Feist lookalike Rebecca Hall), it’s not only because she’s gorgeous, but because she’s from Monte Carlo (“They don’t pay taxes there”). He jokes with Brennan in deadpan that they should wiretap Frost’s hotel room. He pets a dachshund. In a postscript, Frost gives Nixon a pair of the laceless Italian shoes that Nixon had remarked upon. Lost for words, he can only say, “I’m touched.” Somehow, it’s heartbreaking. Frost might be the outsider going into the interviews, but if life is at all about being content and happy, Nixon is life’s underdog. Have Morgan, Howard, and Langella gone too far in a direction opposite Philip Baker Hall’s drunken maniac in Secret Honor, or Anthony Hopkins’s sweaty leprechaun in Nixon? It’s almost too easy to be on his side, even during the “I let the American people down” climax. You’re glad that Brennan interrupts. It doesn’t help that the smug Team Frost muckrakers Reston and Zelnick are what’s presented as the alternative to Nixon’s morose patriotism.

In an effort to make the adaptation unstagey, Howard and his crew attempt to fool you with “fleet” montages (brisk cuts, brisker quips) of researching and power-jetting. He wants to make Platt and Rockwell’s book-hitting as riveting as Redford and Hoffman’s pavement-pounding, an uphill battle Howard loses while compensating with wobble-cam and playful Hans Zimmer bounce. The Rebecca Hall love interest plot is equally tone deaf, tipped off by her laughable first icebreaker, “You have sad eyes.” The character serves merely as an icon of Frost’s popularity with women and love of the good life.

If it was impossible to be excited by the choice of Howard to direct the movie version, it could have gone worse. The play itself is conventional, and hardly begged for radical reinterpretation. Its own conformism makes it seem less, not more, like awards bait. By faithfully following Peter Morgan’s adaptation of his own play, insisting on the same Broadway leads, and not overstraining to universalize it all, Howard has successfully made an okay, watchable movie, kept from greatness only by his undying artistic blandness.

 

 

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