Mr. Frost, Meet Mr. Nixon
Broadcast in four 90-minute programs, the interviews were seen as an enormous risk both for Mr. Frost, who was gambling with his money and future, and for the presidentially pardoned Nixon, who was seeking absolution but risked further public humiliation. (Whatever the outcome, he was guaranteed a sweet jackpot: some $600,000 and 10 percent of the profits.)
For James Reston Jr., who helped Mr. Frost prepare for the interviews (and is played by a rabbity Sam Rockwell in the movie), and whose book “The Conviction of Richard Nixon” was the so-called grist for Mr. Morgan’s play, the former president was akin to Proteus, the wily, shape-shifting Old Man of the Sea from “The Odyssey.” It’s an evocative image, though the thing about Proteus is that when caught he does tell the truth.
As it happens, the worst didn’t happen to either Frost or Nixon, the worst being relative to your political view. The fallen leader fell no further, despite the choking close-ups, beads of sweat, agonized stammers, weird digressions and outrageous pronouncements: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The reviews were decidedly mixed — from prison his former aide John D. Ehrlichman gave Nixon’s performance the big thumbs down, calling it “a smarmy, maudlin rationalization.” But the audience share was huge, blockbuster-size: the first program, on Watergate, which played against a John Wayne flick and reruns of “Good Times” and “The Bionic Woman,” attracted as many viewers as the year’s reigning ratings champ, “Happy Days,” the Eisenhower-era sitcom in which Mr. Howard played the Everyboy Richie Cunningham.
Stories of lost crowns lend themselves to drama, but not necessarily audience-pleasing entertainments, which may explain why “Frost/Nixon” registers as such a soothing, agreeably amusing experience, more palliative than purgative. Anchored by its first-rate leads, who originated the roles on the London stage — Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost — the movie is a talkathon embellished with camera movements. It opens with one of those compressed historical montages, a kind of tossed salad of names, places and dates (Walter Cronkite, Watergate, August 1974), before moving on to the main course: Frost trying to persuade — and, with comforting words and an open checkbook, eventually persuading — Nixon to sit down to a series of on-camera interviews in a suburban Southern California house.
Much like Mr. Morgan’s screenplay for “The Queen,” a fictionalized account of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair in the aftermath of Diana’s death, “Frost/Nixon” turns on a power struggle between stubborn if sympathetic adversaries. Once again Mr. Sheen, who played Mr. Blair in both “The Queen” and “The Deal,” a made-for-British-television movie written by Mr. Morgan, assumes the role of the professional sycophant who proves tougher than his breezy smiles suggest. And once again, much as he was by Helen Mirren in “The Queen,” the likable, watchable Mr. Sheen has been pitted against a scene-stealer who, if not carefully tethered, will devour the screen by the greedy mouthful.
And devour Mr. Langella does, chomp chomp. Artfully lighted and shot to accentuate the character’s trembling, affronted jowls, his shoulders hunched, face bunched, he creeps along like a spider, alternately retreating into the shadows and pouncing with a smile. That smile should give you nightmares, but Mr. Howard, a competent craftsman who tends to dim the lights in his movies even while brightening their themes (“A Beautiful Mind”), has neither the skill nor the will to draw out a dangerous performance from Mr. Langella, something to make your skin crawl or heart leap. Unlike Oliver Stone, who invested Nixon (a memorable Anthony Hopkins) with Shakespearean heft but refused to sentimentalize him, this is a portrait designed to elicit a sniffy tear or two along with a few statuettes.
At one point in the stage production of “Frost/Nixon” the two opponents sat facing each other under a bank of monitors showing the president’s face in fragmented mosaic. It’s a terrific theatrical contrivance that literalizes Mr. Morgan’s belief that Mr. Frost understood the power of the close-up. (Mr. Howard’s more prosaic interpretation of this same theme results in a lot of … close-ups.) But Mr. Morgan radically underestimates Nixon’s own understanding of television itself. By the time he took on Mr. Frost, memories of his flop-sweat encounter with John F. Kennedy had been long supplanted by images of Nixon in China, and on your family television set. As one Nixon adviser said in 1967, “The response is to the image, not to the man.” In 1977 Nixon dusted off that image. The cleanup job continues.
“Frost/Nixon” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Crude language.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Ron Howard; written by Peter Morgan, based on his stage play; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Brian Grazer, Mr. Howard, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.
WITH: Frank Langella (Richard Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick) and Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jr.).
Source : NYTimes