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Frost/Nixon   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan (based on his play)
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Kevin Bacon.

Review by Rob Vaux

The central complaint about Ron Howard is that his films rarely merit the praise they receive. He specializes in middle-of-the-road prestige pictures -- marked by the occasional flat-out disaster -- which look good, feel nice, and provide the kind of harmless moralizing that Oscar voters love to no end. It can be exasperating to listen to words like "masterpiece" tossed about so casually, knowing full well that the movie in question won't even be a blip on the radar this time next year.

Having said that, it helps to remember that the films themselves can still be pretty good. Though rarely capable of bearing the laurels so thoughtlessly heaped upon them, they often demonstrate a strong storytelling style, a commitment to interesting characters, and a resolute professionalism that rarely feels unwelcome. When lionized above more deserving movies, they become insufferable, but a divorce from outside context renders many of them well worth a look. Frost/Nixon makes a perfect example of this trend: an honorable effort not quite worthy of the Oscar buzz surrounding it, but still delivering a reliable level of quality.

Howard works from screenwriter Peter Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play, chronicling the efforts of television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) to land the first recorded interview with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) since Watergate. The talks themselves aired in 1977, highlighted by Nixon's infamous comment that "if the president does it, it's not illegal." But far more fascinating were the circumstances that brought him to that point -- heavily fictionalized here, but no less potent for the issues they uncover. Frost, for his part, was widely considered a lightweight: the host of several successful talk shows and known for lobbing softballs at bubbleheads without raising much of a fuss. With Nixon, he sees a chance at journalistic legitimacy, the mythic white whale that will silence his critics for good. Nixon, in turn, wants a shot at rewriting his own eulogy, and doesn't believe that the sunny Frost will put up much of a fight in their interviews. The film covers the feints and thrusts of the two sides -- Nixon aided by his bevy of loyal yes-men (including Kevin Bacon's Jack Brennan), Frost helped by scholars Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell) as well as loyal gal Friday Caroline Cushing (a very welcome Rebecca Hall).

At stake is the all-important question of Watergate: whether the president will be candid about his part in the scandal that brought him down, or whether he can decisively sweep it all under the rug of history. Howard cues the tension around Morgan's clever script, as both men slowly realize just how much they have invested in the interviews and how badly they may have underestimated each other. Sheen has played Frost onstage and his easy familiarity with the piece allows him to blend seamlessly with the man's showbiz facade. Langella has a tougher task: he doesn't resemble Nixon physically and any effort to close that gap runs the risk of devolving into caricature. He responds by delving deep into the president's psychology, gradually revealing the entitlement, deceit, and bitter self-justification that proved his undoing. While we never forget we're watching an actor, we still see through Langella into the man he portrays with remarkable clarity.

Frost/Nixon posits their battlefield in a constantly shifting media environment. In Frost, Nixon sees more than a shade of his old nemesis Jack Kennedy, and is determined to emerge with the upper hand this time. Frost himself wields enormous power with his looks and showbiz savvy: he just doesn't have the first idea how to use it in the face of such a tenacious foe. The film portrays their conflict directly but succinctly, coating it in a slightly stodgy sheen but never failing to engage us with its central figures. It avoids canned theater territory by adding elements of faux documentary, as well as staging visual flourishes that quietly fend off the tedium. If a slight sense of mustiness remains, Howard brings enough old-fashioned spit and polish to cover it up admirably. Great? Of course not. Few movies of this nature really are. But pretty good still counts for something, and Frost/Nixon has plenty of that to spare.

Review published 12.06.2008.

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