FROST/NIXON

1. More than anything else, Frost/Nixon is entertaining. This is the time of year when this is somehow meant to be an insult, as in, “Well, I love The Dark Knight, it’s incredibly entertaining … but, you know, it’s not serious." As if the goal of movies was to be "serious." (This kind of ridiculousness is how junk like Crash ends up winning Best Picture.) Anyway, Frost/Nixon, heaven forbid, is legitimately entertaining, but in a strange way; the whole film struck me as the world’s most high-minded professional wrestling promo spot. We have the introduction to the combatants, the build-up, the negotiations, the heel turn, even a training montage. All preparing us for the final, climactic battle. It’s just two people going at each other, best man wins. This is Hulk Hogan-Andre the Giant, if Andre the Giant had defrauded the Constitution but wore better clothes.

2. Of course, one of the main issues with Frost/Nixon is that the best man doesn’t win. This says more about David Frost than Richard Nixon. (Obviously.) For three-fourths of the film, Frost is an ineffectual, preening, foppish dope who not only lacks any journalistic chops, but even a modicum of self-awareness. The film wants us to see him as this vat of wasted potential, a guy who could have been someone had he not been stuck in cheesy TV land, but until he decides to straighten up and fly right — in the aforementioned training montage — we’ve gotten no sense that critics who found him too vapid for such a big interview were wrong. He is a vapid TV fop. This makes his transition into Guy Who Nails Nixon too abrupt and unbelievable. This guy, the one portrayed here, he’s the one who takes out an intellectual warrior (albeit a corrupt one) like Nixon? Please.

3. The deification of Frost reveals another problem with the movie, one I’ve commonly heard levied against it: This really wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, I’m happy for David Frost that his career wasn’t ruined in a debate loss with Nixon, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the price of rice in China. It’s telling of the level of Hollywood gloss on this production that it sees the fizzling out of an entertainment career as the worst fate imaginable. There’s a scene late, when Sam Rockwell (very good as the lead researcher for Frost), while angry with Frost, starts to call him “a talk-show host” before stopping himself because, jesus, that’s the most horrible thing you could call someone, apparently. The movie plays this straight, seemingly unaware that it has been asking us to cheer for a guy to whom “talk show host” is the equivalent of the n-word. Hey, Frost: You’re a talk show host. There. I said it. Please try to carry on.

4. The true pleasure of the film is Frank Langella’s performance, and if the film exists only to capture his brilliant stage work for posterity, I’d say it was worth it. His Nixon is, above all, lonely, tortured and standing outside himself and the world, finally unable to lie to himself anymore. Langella also captures Nixon’s warped sense of humor, the kind of guy who specialized in Bob Hope “glad to be playing golf and away from the wife, oh!” schtick used in the service of disarming enemies. (Nixon’s psyche-out of asking Frost if he did any “fornicating last night” is a high point.) Langella’s such a pleasure to watch that you’ll even forgive the extended, and clearly telegraphed as THE REAL NIXON, scene when he drunkenly calls Frost in a self-loathing rage a week before their final interview. It might be a dumb scene, but Langella wrings it for more than it’s worth.

5. Frost/Nixon, as a historical document, is a bit of a crock, and an overinflation of a relatively minor event. (But hey, at least David Frost was able to keep his society parties going afterwards.) But, again, as entertainment, it’s cotton candy. The movie flies along, never overstaying its welcome, and Ron Howard again proves himself as breezingly professional as he is bloodless. Howard directs first-rate entertainments, and that is not so easy to do. He’ll never be a Serious director, as much as he clearly so desperately wants to be, and it’s beginning to look like he’ll never develop a signature style. But hey, who cares? There are a lot more directors with a signature style than there ones that can consistently deliver solid entertainment. Being Serious is overrated. Frost/Nixon is a popcorn movie. Nothing wrong with that.

GRADE: B