Frost/Nixon Dir. Ron Howard

[Universal Pictures; 2008]

Splash. Cocoon. Willow. Iconic, unpretentious fantasy-comedies that have demonstrated surprising resilience on cable television over the years. For over a decade, television star child-turned-director Ron Howard developed a niche as a sort of low-calorie Spielberg, expanding the palette beyond the usual alien encounters to such exotic creatures as mermaids, dwarves, and Val Kilmer. Howard's films, although simplistic and lighthearted, often found comedy in the tension between these fantasy elements and the real world, which is precisely why the remarkably true-to-life Apollo 13 represented the perfect Howard vehicle and remains one of the finest Hollywood studio films of 1990s.

Although still a competent filmmaker, Howard's post-Apollo trajectory has sadly resembled the fabled spacecraft's misguided own. Frost/Nixon is probably a step in the direction compared to recent flops Cinderella Man and (yikes) The Da Vinci Code, but it's yet another baby-boom era historical event slickly reworked into the Hollywood formula, replete with the expected period detail -- vintage cars and tacky suits (though I honestly would've taken the disco standards over... the dreaded Hans Zimmer) -- and triumphing underdog.

Adapted from Peter Morgan's Tony-winning play, Frost/Nixon recreates the interviews between British TV personality David Frost and then-disgraced President Richard Nixon. Seeing an opportunity to revive his own lagging career, Frost went to near-impossible lengths in order to stage a television interview with President Nixon, even self-financing large portions of the budget himself. It was an admirable risk, and the results benefited all involved: Frost rebuilt his reputation, Nixon restored his legacy, and America was rewarded its long overdue admission of wrongdoing.

There is a singular, hypnotic quality to watching two men engage in formal conversation that masks a ferocious battle of wills, but unlike films such as Coffee and Cigarettes or My Dinner with Andre, Howard's film fails to comment on the nature of the conversation itself. Howard undeniably saw something in the idea of a fading television star trying to reconcile his own emptiness with something more substantial, but aside from the canned pseudo-doc interviews, the director does little to expand on the ideas already present in Morgan's play.

The film's saving grace are the two lead performances, converting some of the original play's presumed depth to the screen. Although the Academy goes irrationally gaga watching today's stars bring celebrities of the past back to life, Frank Langella will probably deserve his Oscar for his performance as Richard Nixon. He personifies neither a monster nor a sap, but rather an idiosyncratic outcast whose shortcomings as a man just happened to be magnified on an embarrassingly large scale. Langella's performance finds the right distance from the man himself, abstracting his persona to the point where it feels not like imitation but something far more. It's strangely haunting and avoids the contrivance that unfortunately plagues the rest of the film.

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