Of all the movies being released today, "Frost/Nixon" is the one that will probably get the biggest "So what?" reaction from viewers. I saw the movie weeks ago, and I'm still having trouble finding something worthwhile to say about it.
The second hit Broadway play to hit movie screens on Jesus' birthday this year (the other is "Doubt"), "Frost/Nixon" focuses on the televised 1977 interviews between President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and British broadcaster David Frost (Michael Sheen).
Langella and Sheen played these roles on Broadway and in the original London production, and they are obviously comfortable with their characters. Langella's Nixon manages to get some sympathy from audiences in his portrayal of the Tricky One, whom he plays as a cordial and savvy elder statesman seriously hiding a deep case of insecurity and bitterness.
Sheen's Frost is virtually the same way, but without the scowling and with more fearfulness. While Nixon has already been disgraced, Frost, as much entertainer as newsman, is worried about his own humiliation.
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Scripted by the play's author, Peter Morgan, "Frost/Nixon" is more about media politics than politics in general.
Frost sees interviewing Nixon as his biggest coup, as well as his ticket back to American fame and fortune. He practically funds the interviews on his own dime and rounds up a staff that includes Oliver Platt's veteran reporter and Sam Rockwell's Nixon-loathing author. They are hellbent on getting Nixon to apologize to America for Watergate, Vietnam and just being our least competent, most untrustworthy president. (Oh, if people only knew then, huh?)
But Frost goes into this naively thinking Nixon will cower under the hot lights and come undone, not anticipating that the ex-President might be prepared as well, ready to knock out this dandy boy with the fancy shoes.
Director Ron Howard stages "Frost/Nixon" as the metaphorical boxing match Morgan obviously had in mind in the play. And when it's just Langella and Sheen in the scene, there is a vibrant sense of verbal fisticuffs.
The problem is that they play the only fully realized characters in the whole thing. Howard and Morgan do not develop the supporting characters, so the behind-the-scenes story wrapped around the interviews is rather flimsy.
However, they give the cast (which includes Kevin Bacon as Nixon's chief of staff and Rebecca Hall as Frost's girlfriend) something to do by having them appear in expository talking-head interviews recalling this historic moment in TV history and how historic this moment was, over and over.
I'm sure Howard and Morgan offer "Frost/Nixon" as a thinly veiled commentary on the media in the Bush era.
By recalling how an attention-grabbing TV personality from England came to our shores and got some straight answers out of one of our most controversial former commanders-in-chief, they're wagging a finger at all the news organizations who couldn't do the same thing with our current president.
And yet, "Frost/Nixon" hardly possesses enough strength and energy in its narrative to give us an inspiring, thought-provoking film. I'm sure that the stage version packed a punch. But the movie version only stings a bit.