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Film Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (2008; Directed by Ron Howard)

A couple of strong central performances save this film from both Hollywood contrivance and from Ron Howard’s reliable mediocrity. Even if David Frost and Richard Nixon are largely reduced to cartoon versions of themselves here, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella overcome the unsubtlety of both the writing (heavy-handed Serious Theatre stuff) and the direction (stultifyingly literal Ron Howard stuff), jamming whatever complexity and doubt they can into every available cinematic crevice.

Did you do any fornicating this weekend?

Langella, especially, is fantastic. While his Nixon is a sad, defeated man, nursing his myriad wounds and cursing his countless enemies, he’s still desperate for connections, for public rehabilitation. Most of all, he desires to be seen, at long last, as something more human and true than the sum of his political misdeeds. Surely, he is convinced, his suffering has ennobled him. Otherwise, what the heck was it all for?

For Sheen’s part, meanwhile, his alert eyes are doing reps constantly. His Frost never really lets the slick television presenter facade drop entirely (and this inaccurate depiction of Frost as an unserious, jetsetting moppet who suddenly learns to be a penetrating interviewer for the sake of the narrative climax is one of the film’s major weaknesses), but his pupils tell dozens of different stories at any given time. There’s more self-doubt, loathing, and principle to Frost than the breezy exterior suggests, and Sheen keenly lets us see it.

Some of the supporting actors are all right, too (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell can usually do no wrong, and don’t here), but others are completely adrift (Rebecca Hall is total window-dressing, she serves no other purpose). Kevin Bacon is also good, but then he always is; the guy’s underrated status as a fine and prolific actor became a meta-joke so long ago that it’s easy to forget how true it is. Director Howard, though, just cannot help himself when it comes to telegraphing his meanings, his emotional subtexts, and his images. His visual sense can most generously be described as workmanlike, and a little more is needed to enliven what is, essentially, yet another filmed stage play. There is just too much ponderous, disingenuous fluff in play in Frost/Nixon to make it anything remotely special. But it’s only a disappointment if you ever expected more of Opie, and I can’t really do that at this point.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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