Film Review: Disgraced president gets sympathy in 'Frost/Nixon'

Tricky Dick meets breezy Dave: Frank Langella is Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost in Ron Howard's 'Frost/Nixon.'

Photo by Photos by Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures, Photos by Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures

Tricky Dick meets breezy Dave: Frank Langella is Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon."

Ron Howard made a memorable political film this past year, but "Call to Action" -- the charming campaign short in which Howard reprised the roles of Opie and Richie Cunningham, reunited with Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler, and urged viewers to vote for Barack Obama -- is available only online.

Opening at Malco's Ridgeway Four today is Howard's other recent political film, the very entertaining and technically accomplished but undernourishing "Frost/Nixon," a probable Best Picture Oscar nominee adapted by screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen") from his stage play.

Tricky Dick meets breezy Dave: Frank Langella is Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost in Ron Howard's 'Frost/Nixon.'

Photo by Photos by Ralph Nelson/Universal Pictures

Tricky Dick meets breezy Dave: Frank Langella is Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon."

For three years after being forced from office, Nixon remained silent. But in summer 1977, the steely, cunning former commander-in-chief agreed to sit for one ...

Rating: R for some language

Length: 122 minutes

Released: December 12, 2008 Limited

Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Peter Morgan

More info and showtimes »

Wisely, Howard retains the lead actors from the play, which debuted in London in 2006 and moved to Broadway in 2007.

Michael Sheen is David Frost, the British talk-show host and playboy who hopes his 1977 series of exclusive television interviews with Richard Nixon will reinvigorate his career and establish his journalistic credibility; Frank Langella (who won the Lead Actor Tony Award for his performance) is the disgraced ex-president hoping a national television forum will restore his political influence after the disaster of Watergate.

A populist director whose journeyman efficiency is well-matched to good scripts ("Apollo 13") but fails to elevate bad ones ("The Da Vinci Code"), Howard always is conscious of his audience. "Frost/Nixon" could have been aimed at politics junkies, but Howard works to ensure that mainstream moviegoers with limited knowledge of the 1970s don't feel alienated.

The movie opens with a montage of newsreel footage and "interviews" with secondary characters, so that even youngsters more familiar with the Janet Jackson "Nipplegate" controversy than with Watergate will be able to follow the story.

When Nixon alludes to his unfortunate "history with perspiration," Frost helpfully adds that the ex-president must be "referring to your TV debate with Jack Kennedy in 1960." When Gerald Ford is first mentioned, he's explicitly identified as the man who followed Nixon as president -- a detail unnecessary for the characters in the film, but probably helpful as a history lesson for many moviegoers.

Howard and Morgan also occasionally try to make the film "relevant" to current events. When Frost charges that Nixon's invasion of Cambodia under false pretenses "radicalized" the enemies of the U.S., "uniting them in anti-American sentiment," we're clearly supposed to think of Bush and the invasion of Iraq.

Structured somewhat like a prizefighting film, with hotel-room research sessions replacing training montages and intellectuals and literary agents (Toby Jones plays the legendary "Swifty" Lazar) instead of fight managers and corner men, "Frost/Nixon" presents the TV interview sessions as what Nixon calls a "duel" between "adversaries" (Frost is described by one friend as "the most unlikely of white knights"). Says Frost: "There can be only one winner."

In reality, the movie -- inevitably, given Langella's artistry -- does exactly what Frost and his allies in the film work so hard not to do in the interviews: It transforms the wily Nixon into a sympathetic figure, a lonely, troubled and perhaps misunderstood man -- a familiarly "complicated" movie character, and hardly one of the darkest and most fascinating souls in 20th century America. It also -- again inevitably -- elevates the Frost/Nixon interviews to exaggerated historic significance.

Broadcast as a series of four programs to what were record-breaking audience numbers in 1977, the Frost/Nixon interviews are remembered primarily for Nixon's somewhat generic public apology, in which the only U.S. president ever to resign from office admitted he "let down" the country and "our system of government." This was a coup for the Frost team and a gift for pundits, but it hardly altered the political record. As Langella demonstrates, the overall effect probably was to make Nixon seem less sinister, which is why celebrities have been quick to issue typically insincere public "apologies" for their indiscretions and crimes ever since.

Such issues aside, "Frost/Nixon" is beautifully produced, with convincing period detail and a crack supporting cast that ensures our interest never flags when Sheen or Langella aren't onscreen. Kevin Bacon is a loyal Nixon aide and Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") is Frost's leggy girlfriend, but the scene-stealers are Frost's Nixonphobic researchers, played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell -- a Laurel and Hardy duo who deserve an encore.

-- John Beifuss: 529-2394

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