Thursday, January 22, 2009

Frost/Nixon - Movie Review

FROST/NIXON (***) - Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfayden, Rebecca Hall and Toby Jones.
Directed by Ron Howard.

This movie is okay but I found it very underwhelming. I'm trying to separate the hype around it from what it actually is. At the center is two men in an interview, with good acting from both sides, with two actors ill-served by the framing devices thrust upon them. The boxing metaphor for their verbal pugilism is hammered home repeatedly. Ron Howard's device of interviewing supporting players like this is a documentary reeked of narrative laziness. As for history, well, the more I read on it, the more I see how much dramatic license the filmmakers took.

Maybe I'm jaded, but after living through sixteen years of (fairly or unfairly) presidential scandals every other month, what Nixon did doesn't seem like that big a deal. His crime is that he tried covering it up and got caught. I know it's more than that, and I appreciated how this movie illuminated that Watergate was really the second offense. Nixon's main crime seemed to be how he managed Vietnam. The movie's argument, from bitter leftie James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) is that JFK and LBJ got us into Vietnam but RMN made it worse.

For me the star of the show was Michael Sheen as David Frost. Frost is portrayed as a lightweight talk-show host who dabbles in journalism, a man who puts his personal fortune on the line for the big story. Frank Langella's Nixon was fine, but sometimes he's sympathetic and sometimes he's a boogeyman gargoyle.

There's a key scene late in the movie, when a drunken Nixon calls Frost. That call never happened, but it's the dramatic thrust that makes Frost dig in on his research and hammer at Nixon for the fourth of four interviews.

I did enjoy the war of words, the dance of discussions, between Frost and Nixon. The power of conversation is becoming a lost art in our dumbed-down text-message society, and it was interesting to see how wily Nixon could be. This didn't feel like an adapted stage play, and that's a credit to Peter Morgan, who wrote the play and screenplay.

When it comes to Nixon movies, I prefer Oliver Stone's Nixon. Forget that it's nominated for all these awards. It's a decent movie, but it's far from great and wouldn't make my top 20. I wavered between two-and-a-half stars and three, but had I seen this five months ago before awards season, it would have been three. So...

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