Ron Howard shows his stupidity by adapting Peter Morgan’s stage play Frost/Nixon into a pseudo-TV documentary. Another of the year’s endless liberal propaganda strategies, it unsubtly displays the sanctimony that has accrued to TV journalism—in fact, Howard enshrines it. Frost/Nixon dramatizes the series of 1977 TV interviews that British chat host David Frost did with President Richard Nixon following his resignation after the Watergate scandal. A minor TV event—on the level of Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs at tennis—Howard confers it lunatic importance. It’s meant to “give Nixon the trial he never had.” This biased stance sanctifies contemporary political snark, but it’s really just another media suck-up from the director of The Paper and Ed-TV.
Instead of complexity, Frost/Nixon manifests Peter Morgan’s confusion over celebrity. Screenwriter of 2006’s The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, Morgan’s specialty is sucking up. His interest in powerful people’s personal lives is no more “ambivalent” than OK magazine or Gawker. He doesn’t construct an ethical exchange like Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs but arranges a kangaroo court version of a TV “exclusive.” Shuffling between Frost’s financing details and the disgraced President in seclusion, Morgan’s head spins: Who to flatter? Who to sneer at? It’s a contemporary version of the fan’s mania in Day of the Locust. Morgan gleefully humiliates Frost (“They said you achieved great fame without possessing any discernible qualities”); slanders Nixon as xenophobic, racist and homophobic—then pretends sympathy.
It takes a nincompoop like Howard to imagine depth in this silliness. When Frost hires left-leaning journalists James Reston and Bob Zelnick as “corner men” to prepare his questions, the movie shifts into “gotcha” mode. Reston’s liberal rage commandeers the movie. He insists, “The American people need a conviction, pure and simple!” and his disdain—the typical journalist’s sanctimony that his own interest is the public’s—goes unquestioned. This disastrous turn in political drama steamrolls over the advances made by Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner cable-TV series where brilliant detachment and moving revelation captured the folly and egotism of politicians and journalists.
As the title suggests, Frost/Nixon prioritizes media over politics, just as political theater has trumped democratic thinking—especially in the ruthless age where people casually say, “I get my news from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.” Conflating the terms “performer” and “journalist” produces the Barbara Walters canard. Tossing in the checkbook-journalism controversy or tidbits like Diane Sawyer working for Nixon merely jumbles insiderness with the crusading-journalist fantasy from All the President’s Men.
Morgan likes gossip while Howard goes for piety, encouraging his actors to make each cardboard character pathetic. Michael Sheen’s Frost is desperate (“Success in America is unlike success anywhere else. The emptiness when it’s gone and the sickening thought it may never come back!”) but with Geraldo Rivera-Charlie Rose deviltry. Frank Langella’s Nixon hulks around like Walter Matthau but then that eloquent, stage-trained voice comes out—and the result is a sad Gore Vidal! That Frost and Nixon’s midnight phone-call inspires competition rather than compassion is the film’s central failure.
Only supporting performances by Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s loyal aide and mercurial Sam Rockwell as hothead James Reston seem fresh, but even these roles are stacked. Howard sponsors Reston’s media-friendly wrath, down to his fatuous assessment: “The reductive power of the close-up: Getting for a fleeting moment Richard Nixon’s face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.” It might have been moving if Reston wasn’t gloating. Frost/Nixon revisits the source of modern liberal-media pique like old Confederates still fighting the Civil War.
Directed by Ron Howard, Running Time: 122 min.
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