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by Peter Sobczynski

"Fun With Dick And Dave"
4 stars

On the surface, it would seem as if “Frost/Nixon,” the big screen adaptation of the award-winning play by Peter Morgan, is the kind of adult-oriented entertainment that has everything going for it. It is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of adult-oriented drama that manages to remain compelling throughout even though most viewers are likely to go into it knowing more or less how it all turns out. It contains a gallery of excellent performances from everyone from Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, recreating their stage roles as Richard Nixon and David Frost, to the smaller supporting turns. It even manages to transcend its theatrical origins in such a way so that it feels like an actual film and not just a play that has been awkwardly opened up in its move from the stage to the screen. For these reasons, I have no problems in recommending the film, especially if you have a pronounced interest in the subject matter, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that despite all of those things, the film is still missing something at its core--some spark of life that would elevate it from the good movie that it is to the great movie that it wants to be. Unfortunately, that spark is just not in evidence and the result is the kind of film that works well enough to keep you entertained and interested as it plays out but lacks the kind of depth or resonance that might have kept it swimming in your mind long after you left the theater.

For those of you too young to remember, the film examines one of the biggest journalistic coups of the 1970’s--the series of television interviews that former President Richard Nixon granted to British talk show host David Frost in 1977--as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into producing them. At the time, both men appeared to be outwardly successful--Frost had numerous shows going on in England and Australia and was branching out into film producing with such projects as “The Slipper and the Rose” while Nixon, having been pardoned by Gerald Ford for any and all crimes that he may have committed without having to make any admission of guilt, was relaxing in San Clemente while working on his memoirs with a team of assistants that includes a young woman by the name of Diane Sawyer. However, both men are both suffering from similar bouts of quiet desperation regarding their status in the world as well as a common need to continue to seem both busy and relevant in a world that threatens to leave them behind . Having lost his American talk show a few years earlier, Frost is desperate to regain his stateside celebrity status (“Success in America is unlike success anywhere else.”) and believes that the best way to do that is to score the first major post-presidential interview with Nixon and sell it to one of the American networks for a tidy sum. As for Nixon, he is hoping to find a platform that will allow him to spin away all that Watergate nonsense while reestablishing his position as an elder statesman.

Of course, the $600,000 payday that Frost pays Nixon for the interviews doesn’t hurt either, especially when Frost’s inability to interest any of the major networks in the interviews suggests that they may never happen. Eventually, Frost takes the risk of syndicating the interviews around the world, a gambit that was virtually unheard of at the time, and finds himself financing the entire thing himself while struggling to find enough sponsors to help him underwrite them. While he is trying to do that, his producer, John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), and his researchers, James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), diligently putting together a hard-edged inquiry that they hope will give Nixon the public trial for his misdeeds that he never had while Nixon aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) tries to micromanage things in favor of his man--after agreeing that only one of the four interview sessions would deal with Watergate, he tries to push to have all of Nixon’s alleged wrongdoings lumped into that segment in order to minimize the time spent on them. Finally, the two meet to begin the actual interviews and the rest, as they say, is history.

For most viewers, at least those who aren’t either political or media junkies, this may not sound like the most exciting thing in the world but in putting the material together, Morgan, who also did the screenplay, and Howard have managed to sculpt it into something that should work dramatically for those viewers who are coming into the film with virtually no knowledge of the subject. In a strange way, they have structured the story using, of all things, the template for the “Rocky” movies--Frost as the underdog facing impossible odds, both in getting the show together and in facing off against his formidable opponent, Nixon as the battle-tested warrior who sees this challenger as just another slick punk that he can put away, Birt, Reston and Zelnick as, respectively, Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire and Burt Young and Diane Sawyer as, I suppose, the Brigitte Nielsen character from “Rocky IV.” This analogy extends to the scenes involving the interviews themselves--despite his early bravado, Frost quickly loses control of the interviews to Nixon, who effortlessly controls the first three sessions by effectively psyching him out before the cameras begin to roll (“Do any fornicating?”) and giving long and self-serving responses to the questions that allow him to eat up time and paint a rosy picture of himself and his legacy without ever quite answering Frost’s actual queries. And as in the “Rocky” films, these setbacks lead Frost to have a dark and anxious night of the soul until he is inspired to make one final stand during the last session--the one that is dedicated to Watergate and the one on which the fortunes of the entire production rest--by finally going head-to-head with Nixon and scoring a knockout blow by luring him into making the closest thing to an admission of guilt about Watergate that he would ever offer up.

From a commercial standpoint, this particular narrative approach is probably a smart one--it transforms what could have easily been an oblique talking head drama into something that the average audience can easily engage with regardless of their knowledge of the subject. And yet, while Howard does an admirable job of telling the story without letting bog down into a bunch of arcane details--from a storytelling standpoint, it is easily the slickest and most efficient filmmaking that he has done since “Apollo 13” (which was, perhaps not coincidentally, another film that gave us a behind-the-scenes look at a story that most of us experienced via the medium of television)--the end result is a film that is so slick and efficient that it winds up losing some of the energy and excitement that might have been generated by a more oblique version. At times, Howard just goes a little too far in his desire to make sure that no one in the audience is confused about what is going on or why--at several points, he inserts peculiar and pointless documentary-like interview segments in which the supporting characters offer up commentary as to what is going on that are needless at best and borderline insulting at worst--even though there are times when it might have been better to just adopt a fly-on-the-wall approach and let us sort things out for ourselves. Take Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” for example--while it is not without its flaws, one of the things that really works is the way that in plunges viewers into the story of Che Guevara without pausing to offer up constant explanations of every minute detail. Of course, being a follower of both the media and politics, I went into the film with a pretty good working knowledge of the events and I suppose that might skew my feelings in this regard a bit but even so, I think that audiences today are better at being plunged into stories that force them to make sense of things for themselves without over-explaining everything (something that Morgan did quite effectively in his screenplay for “The Queen”) and I firmly believe that if “Frost/Nixon” had a little more faith in its potential viewers in this regard, it could have made for a truly electrifying experience.

What saves from being just another one of the well-meaning snoozes that has defined the majority of Howard’s directorial output over the years is the impressive nature of the performances on display. In portraying Richard Nixon, Frank Langella has wisely not attempted to alter his appearance at all or his voice that much in order to approximate the look and sound of the actual man--a wise move because if he had taken that approach, viewers would spend all of their time nitpicking in that regard. Instead, he does something far more difficult--he creates a more-than-plausible replication of Nixon by simply using his body language and the cadences in his speech and then fleshes out the role with his galvanizing talent as an actor so that the performance comes across as much more than just a mere impersonation. In the early going, Michael Sheen is at a bit of a disadvantage--his Frost during these scenes has a tendency to seem like a mild variation of his work as Tony Blair in “The Deal” and “The Queen”--but once he and Langella get to the meatier material in the second half of the film, his work becomes more focused and nuanced and just as Frost managed to keep up with Nixon in the end, he more than holds his own against his co-star. As with many Ron Howard films, there are a lot of effective supporting performances--Kevin Bacon is strong in what is arguably the most underwritten role while Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are funny and engaging as the researchers trying to change the world from behind the scenes. The best of the bunch, strangely enough comes from Rebecca Hall in what is easily the most superfluous role in the story--the lovely lass that Frost picks up on the airplane on the way to his first meeting with Nixon and who becomes his lover, inspiration and sounding board. There is no real reason for her character to be around but she contributes a quietly impressive performance that serves as a reminder that Hall, whom you may recall from her work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Prestige” is quickly becoming an actress to watch.

In the grand scheme of films that have emerged over the years about Richard Nixon and the legacy of Watergate, “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t begin to compare with the likes of “Nixon,” “All the President’s Men” or even the hilarious and sadly underrated “Dick.” Nevertheless, in its take on one small slice of the story--even if it is one that hasn’t exactly resonated throughout the ages (despite the impression suggested by the ending, Frost never managed to sustain a career in America while Nixon was able to at least partially rehabilitate his public image in the years before his death in 1994)--the film does offer up a reasonably absorbing and exciting take on a fascinating historical footnote and allows those of us who didn’t get to see Langella’s award-winning performance during the play’s original run to have a chance to get an approximation of what all the fuss was about. “Frost/Nixon” may seem overly fussy at times and it may not be the powerhouse that it wants to be but the things that do work work well enough to make it worth watching even though it could have and should have been so much better and deeper than it is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17028&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/12/08 00:36:04
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User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell good not great 4 stars
8/22/11 Annie G Excellent; well acted for a historical film about not too distant past. 4 stars
7/01/09 MP Bartley Stellar acting gives it the oomph that Howard's predictably pedestrian direction lacks. 4 stars
5/21/09 the dork knight A brisk movie, to the point. Good performances. 4 stars
2/21/09 Piz A little drab but considering the subject it was mildly entertaining. 3 stars
1/25/09 mr.mike Michael Sheen should also have been nominated for an Oscar. 4.5 stars. 4 stars
1/23/09 Suzz excellent film; superb acting 4 stars
1/17/09 Samantha Pruitt probably better on stage, boring in parts, but acting makes up for it! 4 stars
1/04/09 R.W. Welch Only slightly hoked up. Both leads highly effective. B+ 4 stars
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  DVD: 21-Apr-2009


  DVD: 21-Apr-2009

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