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Review: Frost/Nixon

Tricky flick
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 12, 2008
2.5 2.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon | Directed by Ron Howard | Written by Peter Morgan based on his play | with Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell | Universal Pictures | 122 minutes
Notwithstanding his self-pitying prophecy after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, we'll always have Nixon to kick around. We'll never fully account for the man who singlehandedly undermined the Constitution, destroyed our faith in government, and blighted the executive branch. How was it we elected the bastard twice, the second time in a landslide? Robert Altman wrestled with this enigma in the claustrophobic and brilliant Secret Honor (1984), Oliver Stone in the underrated and nutty Nixon (1995). Now there's Ron Howard's adaptation of Peter Morgan's 2006 hit play Frost/Nixon, a film that through equivocations, platitudes, and at least one showy performance transforms the legacy of the most malignant troll in American history into a buddy movie.

That said, Frost/Nixon, like many Ron Howard movies, can be amusing when it doesn't exasperate. Since the film ranges in style from stagy to sit-com, the performances and the dialogue do most of the work. Michael Sheen's David Frost conveys some of the smarmy sardonic wit that gave '60s American TV audiences a taste of pre-Pythonite British snark. For years he's been a star, but by 1974 Frost is reduced to covering wacky stunts. Then he spots Nixon's resignation speech on TV. Four hundred million others are watching too. If Frost can get that man in a televised one-on-one, his glory days will return.

The grumpy ex-president (Frank Langella), meanwhile, is basking in San Clemente and working with his agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), to get the best deal for his memoirs. When in 1977 the Frost offer comes through, the Tricky One sees an opportunity to reinvent himself once again.

As for Frost and his team, they spend a lot of energy soliciting sponsors and a network. It seems that in these innocent days universal notoriety was not necessarily a selling point. More important, they're divided on the focus of the interviews. Young hotheads like researcher James Reston (Sam Rockwell) want to nail Nixon to the wall and give the world the trial it was denied by Ford's pardon. Frost, on the other hand, is the voice of moderation. Let's not sour the deal, he advises — after all, this is about my career, not historical justice.

Okay, so he doesn't say that — but maybe if Martin Scorsese had directed and not Ron Howard, he might have and the story might been pitched more as about weasels fighting in a hole than as an epic combat between battered titans. Either way, it comes down to Langella's performance. Although he doesn't sound like Nixon, he awkwardly inhabits his body in the same way as the original. But unlike the gargoyle I remember, Langella's Nixon exudes a seductive charm and vulnerability. He's the film's chief virtue, and its biggest flaw.

Near the end, in a boozy wee-hour phone call on the eve of the last and most crucial interview, Nixon confides to Frost that, yes, we are the same, you and I. Although only one of us can win, we are both despised underdogs treacherously destroyed by elite phonies.

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