Like most Oscar bait, Ron Howard's dull, unctuous Frost/Nixon stinks. The film, about English talk-show host David Frost's television "trial" of former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), inflates and distorts a fishy media nonevent from the 1970s that has been revived and repackaged for your consideration during the final days of George W. Bush's presidency, which coincide with — surprise, surprise — the opening days of the biggest Academy Awards publicity push.
This skeletal, power-suited duet is really a pseudo-historical freak-show. As Frost, Michael Sheen's features and coiffure are distorted enough to make him look like a Dr. Seuss sketch of Austin Powers. He's a total airhead who's supposed to be no match for old Tricky Dick. But Nixon himself is portrayed as an old softie, a pushover with a basset-hound mug and a proclivity for long-winded homilies. Their on- and off-camera encounters are often less than riveting.
Both the impromptu strategy sessions before and after each interview taping and the breathless cheers and jeers from each camp — Nixon adviser Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) compares the president's opening remarks to a boxer's first punch, while Frost researcher James Reston (Sam Rockwell, doing a passably skittish Tom Cruise impression) croaks that Nixon's performance during the early interview sessions was "horrifying ... and he was so confident" — backfire in their attempts to hype the two men's big Watergate showdown. Instead, the interviews evoke the tawdry, greasy feel of a fixed prizefight. And according to Elizabeth Drew's December 14, 2008 article on The Huffington Post, that's exactly what it was.
Not only was Nixon paid $600,000 for his participation, he received 20 percent of the cut from sales of the interview to television stations. The film is explicit about the price Frost paid for the interview, but the sweet back end of this deal is never mentioned. Without knowing that Nixon had a fiscal stake in the proceedings, the legitimacy and credibility of his remarks are far less questionable than they were. As Drew points out, "the two purported gladiators were in business together, with a mutual interest in making the interviews interesting enough to make a nice profit." Politics has its theatrical side, but this phony summit remains a historical footnote precisely because both sides were peddling baloney from the start.
Frost/Nixon is specious, dead-end grad-school historical revisionism at best, and it's about as entertaining as copyediting a master's thesis. Langella's laconic, soggy Nixon lags behind the livelier previous incarnations by Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honor), and Dan Hedaya (Dick). Langella isn't even the best Nixon in the movie; Oliver Platt, who plays Frost researcher Bob Zelnick, briefly imagines the commander in chief as a cross between Ed Sullivan and the jowly Gungan ruler from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
At its climax, the film luxuriates in a money shot of Nixon sulking in plausibly deniable defeat as Reston brays about "the reductive power of the close-up." That this overused shot is praised for its "reductive" ability rather than its capacity to reveal or instruct is the clearest indication of this movie's shoddy priorities.
Opening Friday, January 9th