Benjamin Baxter

Frost/Nixon: I Let the American People Down …

In Reviews on January 16, 2009 at 1:42 am

The title of Frost/Nixon (2008) evokes red gloves and steroids, and the film aspires to present a titanic battle of wits. Notebooks, files and research staffs take their place; winner by befuddlement rather than knockout. Too bad that doesn’t quite come across.

It isn’t like time dulls the effectiveness of a film about the foremost American boogeyman. Though it’s been a generation-and-a-half since a British game show host took on the man with phelbitis-infused mouthguards to an anticlimactic end, and almost 15 years since former president Richard Milhous Nixon died, Nixon hasn’t eroded from infamy all that much. Never here, we imagine we told ourselves before he took office. Never again, we imagine we told ourselves after. The single most fascinating character of the American presidency is still its surest pariah.

Nixon is sort of a touchy subject.

British commentator David Frost knew it, and decided to take advantage. In 1977, he sat down for the first post-presidency interview with Nixon. It in many ways cemented Nixon’s image as a calculating, stonewalling dissembler just when he was angling for a comeback, and launched Frost into the realm of respectable television journalists.

British screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan knew it, and decided to take advantage. In 2006, his play about the Frost/Nixon interviews premiered in London to critical acclaim.

Mayberry-runt-cum-Hollywood-director Ron Howard knows it, and so he decided to take to chances.  Howard shot his film in the same carefully generic manner as his anemic The DaVinci Code; he asked Frank Langella and Martin Sheen to reprise their acclaimed Broadway performances as Nixon and Frost.

The frequently unremarkable Howard has long since mastered the long shot, the medium shot and the closeup for dramatic effect, and how to moderate the three. Fortunately for the film, Howard’s unremarkably Christopher Columbus direction suits it; there’s no place for Tim Burton’s visual pizazz, or Oliver Stone’s ridiculous historical sophistry, because the drama itself, bolstered by reprise of a Tony-winning performance, should be enough.

It isn’t. Though Langella won that Tony for his gravelly-voiced, jowl-less Nixon and by all accounts deserved it, but on the big screen he’s almost bipolar. This Nixon abruptly switches between the extremes of odd excellence and cruel caricaturist with a heartbeat’s notice. There are more moments of the former, but that there are so many of the latter prevent Langella from having offered a great performance.

That said, Langella’s Nixon is still the best this film has to offer. There are the familiarly bland plotlines of trust and betrayal within Frost’s staff. The adequate supporting cast add little more than a framing device to the interviews. Sheen’s Frost works, and that’s the best that could be said. None of it compares to shining few moments Langella’s good Nixon dedicates to laceless men’s shoes.

Frost/Nixon pulls a Good Night, and Good Luck by exaggerating the success of a courageous journalist against a menacing political foe, but this overdramatic ending feels particularly like a cheap cop-out from reality — knowing that Frost didn’t really offer such a last-round knockout the film shows spoils the fun, and negates its effectiveness.

Like the original 1977 bout, all players involved try their darndest. Like the original 1977 bout, it goes the full 12 rounds without landing a satisfying punch.

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