A quick look at what my favorite critics have to say about “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s extremely shiny adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play about the 1977 televised interviews between British TV personality David Frost and former president Richard Nixon, played, respectively, by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, both reprising their stage roles.
“‘Frost/Nixon’ offers considerable insight into the Nixon mystery, without solving it; the movie is fully absorbing and even, when Nixon falls into a drunken, resentful rage, exciting, but I can’t escape the feeling that it carries about it an aura of momentousness that isn’t warranted by the events,” muses David Denby at the New Yorker. David Edelstein, at New York, also finds it fine, if a little lacking: “The film, directed rather impersonally by Ron Howard, is brisk, well crafted, and enjoyable enough, but the characters seem thinner (Sheen is all frozen smiles and squirms) and the outcome less consequential.” At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis is similarly mild in her praise: “Stories of lost crowns lend themselves to drama, but not necessarily audience-pleasing entertainments, which may explain why ‘Frost/Nixon’ registers as such a soothing, agreeably amusing experience, more palliative than purgative.”
More enthusiastic: Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club, who finds that “[t]he film consequently has the emotional arc of a sports movie, with the overmatched underdog enduring a vicious beating before staging a stunning comeback,” while Dana Stevens at Slate agrees that “Morgan’s compact, satisfying drama presents presidential interviewing as a gladiatorial event,” and, like most, calls out Langella’s performance in particular: “”Langella feels his way into the black hole of Nixon’s inner life so fearlessly that you worry for the actor’s sanity.” Stephanie Zacharek at Salon adds that “Howard has made a picture for grown-ups, a well-constructed entertainment that neither talks down to its audience nor congratulates it just for showing up.”
Less enthusiastic: J. Hoberman at the Village Voice finds “Frost./Nixon” the film lacking when compared to the stage version: “In opening up the play, however, the movie unavoidably dissipates its power. Having Nixon’s actual lair, the so-called Casa Pacifica, as a location is considerably less compelling than the stripped-down onstage set, in which Langella and Sheen competed not just with each other, but with their giant, multiplied video images.” Bill Weber at Slant sums the film up as “a trivial afterword to a historical footnote, a showbiz story inflated into a retroactive therapy session for one of 20th-century America’s biggest knaves.” And Armond White at the New York Press snarls “Instead of complexity, Frost/Nixon manifests Peter Morgan’s confusion over celebrity… Morgan’s specialty is sucking up. His interest in powerful people’s personal lives is no more ‘ambivalent’ than OK magazine or Gawker… It takes a nincompoop like Howard to imagine depth in this silliness.”
[Photo: “Frost/Nixon,” Universal Studios, 2008]