The worst plays are more intimate than great movies. Sitting in the audience watching live actors treading the boards without the safety net, i.e. CUT, is a different intensity of intimacy than can be found in the polished and edited actors performing for actor-friendly cameras. A flubbed line in a movie is called an outtake; a flubbed line in a play is a piece of tension shared throughout the auditorium.
Frost/Nixon had to be a great play. I mean, you are presented with a tragic figure (and the closest thing to true Aristotelian tragedy the US has created—so far as I can tell) who fell from the heights to become the subject of scathing articles, books that blame, books that spent hundreds of pages just trying to find his flaw, then falling into Trivial Pursuit like semi-infamy.
It does not translate well into film.
Shortly after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, David Frost, a charming but mostly vapid talk show host got his mind set on being the first person to interview the resignee. After negotiating a hefty fee for the privilege, David Frost got his interviews almost 3 years after Mr. Nixon left the White House.
Each side of this story had a cadre of people treating their hero as the boxer in a do-or-die bout. Nixon (Frank Langella) had a Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon); Frost (Michael Sheen) had, primarily, producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) with a strong second fiddle in a researcher James Reston (Sam Rockwell). On the one side you have the serious and funereal severity meant to tamp down the shame contrasted almost point by point in the carefree and careless nature of the hip Frost set. Jack Brennan’s shoe imagery sums it up best: men wore lace up wingtips, sissy boys wore slip on Italian loafers.
The loafer wearing Brit got the gig because he was considered such a lightweight that he would never be able to match one of the greatest debaters of his time. This plot aspect is driven mainly by Frost’s back story of having to finance what increasingly looked like a fool’s errant, and his gad-about in the ultra-hip Southern California that made him look like a gad-about to his producer and researcher. Did he rise to the challenge? Logic being what it is . . . I will leave it to a reader to decide this on his/her own.
Mr. Langella is one of the men of serious film that kind of sneaks up; he is so natural in any of his characters that he disappears (I think Gene Hackman is like that and Harvey Keitel on his better days). I still don’t know whether the interpretation we get on film is his doing or director Ron Howards’s decision. Either way, I kept getting the sense that I was seeing yet another caricature of the easiest president to mimic (W included). Mr. Langella played up the sweat and drool aspects of Nixon to the point that it looked like a leaky version of other satires of this president. I really wanted to like him in this role. I was more disappointed than not.
Michael Sheen’s version of Frost pushed his foppishness to the extreme. He doesn’t come across as any more real or likable than his counterpart.
The other actors playing the, literally, supporting roles are what kept me watching. The back and forth between Nixon and Frost was flat at best. The interaction between Mr. Bacon and Misters Platt and Rockwell showed most of the tension of the film; the rest of this tension was between Sheen and Rockwell with the stalwart researcher facing off against the carefree Brit. The interview scenes themselves were a distraction from the real pathos the film wanted to portray through its main characters.
There was nothing at all special about the structure of the story. Someone of Mr. Howard’s abilities need not have directed this film. It isn’t an art-house piece where a staid design heightens the emotions by not getting in the way. Simply, Frost/Nixon is a film lost in time. It does not invite a viewer who knows nothing of the situation; it only suggests invitation to those who know the issue fairly well.
I also thought that this was a prequel to the inevitable analogue when #43 consents to an interview. Neither man ever admitted any mistake. Both men insured the deaths of tens of thousands (treble that for #37). Both men left the country in far worse shape than it was when they started. Both men had a generally hated vice-president. These similarities are just the salient ones of dozens of other comparisons. (I review The Assassination of Richard Nixon which also left me with the notion that we were sort of being primed for the more contemporary story to come).
Given this, I cannot recommend it. If you are interested in the topic, then watch the real Frost-Nixon interviews. If you are not interested at all, even the actual interviews are likely to bore you to tears.
If you opt to see this it is because of the “how” the story is told versus the “what” the story tells.
What did you think of this review?