Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
Frost/Nixon is a damn fine movie, but it probably requires a certain kind of audience to fully appreciate it. Any monkey can see that Frank Langella (a.k.a. Sexy Dracula and Skeletor) is giving an absolutely genius performance as Tricky Dick Nixon, and that he’s surrounded by equally inspired actors performing for a laid-back Ron Howard. But, y’know, if you’re not into media issues and politics, and don’t have a sense of the importance to American civic life of Nixon’s downfall, then you might find this two-hour look at the preparation and execution of David Frost’s 1977 interview with Nixon a bit slow at points.
These interviews were the only place that Nixon ever publicly admitted any responsibility for Watergate or remorse for what he did to America’s theoretical faith in electoral democracy. (Yes, children of the Bush Era, I hear you snickering in the back of the classroom. There really was a time when a president lying to the American people over something that didn’t even have a body count could shake our faith. Can you imagine what it must’ve been like to have faith in the political process?)
Langella won a Tony award for playing this role on Broadway, and he brings Oscar-caliber chops to the screen version. Interestingly, he and the script make Nixon, a wily and mischeivous man put too soon to pasture, more charming and sympathetic, more real, than Frost. As compellingly played by Michael Sheen, Frost is glib, feckless and all but doomed against such a savvy political operator as Nixon. The British TV lightweight is about one step up from a Ricky Gervais character. You end up wanting Nixon to win what is billed as a battle between interviewer and subject, and you might find yourself thinking, “Aw, man, so the dude screwed up. Give him a break.” I’m not sure this is the reading of Nixon’s legacy we want to give an entire generation, but hey, the crap American education system is not Ron Howard’s fault (this could also be his defense for directing The Divinci Code, except that sucked as pure cinema as well as for historical and intellectual rigor).
The film is shot in semi-documentary style. You remember how When Harry Met Sally is shot as a normal schmaltzy crap romantic comedy, except that it keeps interrupting itself with little documentary snippets of old people telling you about their first date? This film keeps interrupting itself with the characters being interviewed (by whom, it’s never said) and explaining what you’re watching, or what the filmmakers are leaving out to move things along. They’ve replaced the thinly disguised exposition of your standard movie with baldfaced exposition of people talking to the camera. It’s nice most of the time, and effective, but sometimes the talky people are telling you things, interpreting scenes, for you when you might rather have Howard and Co. trust you to be smart enough to figure out on your own.
Despite occasionally telegraphing its punches, the film tackles a key event in American political history from an interesting angle and freakin’ Skeletor knocks it outta the goddamned park.