Sunday, January 4, 2009

Like A Few Good Men, also directed by a former TV actor turned reliable Hollywood hired hand, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon builds to a phony climax in which The Hero manipulates The Villain into making a Startling Revelation that the audience knows will come simply by glancing at their cellphones and realizing that only fifteen minutes keep them from sunlight and freedom. Maybe this worked onstage. Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play for the screen, isn't content to trust our delight in the thousands of Nixonian bon mots uttered in the course of the real-life Frost/Nixon interviews: he constructs more than an hour of "back story" designed to show David Frost as the insouciant playboy who Learns To Be A Man (I'm sure the only reason Tom Cruise wasn't hired for the part is because Michael Sheen is better box office these days). Here's another movie assembled around a personage whose evil is so taken for granted that the filmmakers can ignore, relieved, all history, context, and consequences. Frost was hardly the vacuous entertainer of Morgan and Howard's feeble imaginations; even taking into account the usual retrospective whitewashing, Frost's own Behind The Scenes of the Nixon Interviews proved how much he'd researched his subject, and how fully he understood the implications of Nixon's Constitutional crimes; however much he may have wanted an apology on national television from the Dickster for sensationalist reasons, it's clear that Frost and his team also didn't look for a "Did you order the Code Red?" moment. As with Doubt, I left Frost/Nixon wondering why the hell this was filmed in the first place, especially when, thanks to YouTube, we can watch the actual debate, and all of Nixon's one of a kind mix of lawyerly evasion, genuine intelligence and probity, self-pity, and ponderousness.

As for Frank Langella, he proves -- as Philip Baker Hall and Anthony Hopkins did -- that it's difficult for a professional actor to play a bad actor, which is what Nixon was (one of the few things Frost/Nixon gets right is how superbly Nixon understood the nature of TV lighting and presentation -- after the 1960 presidential election he knew more than most). It's a confident performance by a pro, but it leaves no aftertaste, nothing that lingers. Another disadvantage: Langella is a more imposing physical presence than Nixon ever was; Langella's playing Saruman, while the real Richard Milhouse Nixon was more like Wormtongue. Kevin Bacon proves once again how well he plays crypto-fascists.

5 comments:

M said...

The sad thing is that I know just how lame this is going to be--it's a Ron Howard movie, for Christ's sake--and I'm going to see it anyway, because I am a Watergate fanboy.

Alfred Soto said...

So am I, and if you haven't yet, go read Perlstein's Nixonland right now.

M said...

Haha part of my slow-listening vow for '09 involves the dozens of books I own but have never read, so those come first. (Alas.)

Anthony said...

(I'm sure the only reason Tom Cruise wasn't hired for the part is because Michael Sheen is better box office these days)

DAAAAAAAMN.

Theon said...

Langella's playing Saruman, while the real Richard Milhouse Nixon was more like Wormtongue.

NERD