Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Problem with Frost/Nixon

"Pull my finger."

If you ever find yourself searching for an instance of one single creative misfire derailing an entire enterprise, then look no further than the talking heads in Frost/Nixon. At first they are simply bizarre – they pop up like mushrooms at the beginning, the look of the scenes determinedly different from the rest of the movie: pale, over-lit, and detached. It’s an interesting directorial choice by Ron Howard, but a gimmick, nonetheless – a workmanlike way to differentiate what are supposed to be reflective testimonies from the men behind the scenes of the infamous Frost-Nixon television interviews of 1977 . Later, they serve to underline every single subtext of the film, and become annoying winks at the camera. I was reminded of the old He-Man cartoons, where Mekaneck would show up at the end of the episode to tell the audience the moral of the story: “This week, Richard Nixon lied to the people of Eternia that he had nothing to do with Stinkor or Kobra Khan. But truth always comes out. Good night, kids, and never talk to strangers.”

But for the initial WTF interviews, Frost/Nixon sets the stage relatively well. When the film starts, it’s already been a few years since Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, in a wonderful performance) has resigned from the presidency in total shame, and the British satirist/journalist/alleged Peter Cook plagiarist David Frost (Michael Sheen – if only it were Charlie Sheen) is in his own outback wilderness, doing his best Roger Moore impression on Australian TV. Realising that an on-air interview of the disgraced former President would make for fascinating – not to mention lucrative – television, Frost decides to contact Nixon, and, since he is unable to get financing from any television network, eventually invest his own money in the whole thing. Finally, the interview’s on (the build-up seems to last forever), and both parties go into debate camp – think Rocky IV training montage sans Brigitte Nielsen.*

By the time Frost and Nixon are facing off on camera, the whole interminable saga to get them there has been so fervid that we expect the same sort of intensity from the actual interviews themselves – which never comes. Nixon smacks Frost around until the last interview when he kinda, sorta admits wrongdoing but the moment never manages to pack that final punch to knock down not just Nixon but the audience, too. Yeah, he pussyfoots around an apology, and it’s pathetic in a way. But we are so used to disgraced politicians’ FUBAR moments on TV these days – I am writing this as Jay Leno roasts Rod “The Haircut” Blagojevich’s bizarre interview where he compares himself to Mother Theresa – that the film fails to recapture a moment that sent an entire generation of baby boomers grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Apart from the annoying talking heads (during some of which the otherwise reliable Sam Rockwell is especially grating), Ron Howard and the writer Peter Morgan make a few other questionable choices. Nixon is portrayed as a bit of a perv, the supposed ying/yang relationship between him and Frost feels reaching, as does the vicarious pleasure Tricky Dick takes in Frost's urban haute bourgeois playboy lifestyle. There is also a pivotal scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost in the middle of the night and voids his conscience over the phone – it’s obviously fictitious, and, yes, this is a film, and, thus, a fictionalised account of real events. But it’s so crucial to the way that final, fateful, confrontation plays out that its lack of authenticity drains Nixon’s pseudo-confession of all its oomph.

Eventually, Frost/Nixon tries to juggle too many balls at once: redemption, salvation, repentance – all the while trying to be a solemn paean to the power of television in cutting through the bullshit. I liked it more when it was called Good Night, and Good Luck.

*Nice, topical pop-culture references there, you hepcat, you.