Ron Howard's tedious and pretentious Frost/Nixon is misconceived on so many levels, it's a tossup where to begin. Perhaps with the movie's biggest miscalculation, which is figuring audiences give a hoot about a 30-year-old turning point in a cocky, callow British television personality's career.
Ah, but you thought this Hollywood adaptation of Peter Morgan's play was less about bushy-tailed talk-show host David Frost than disgraced former Pres. Richard Millhouse Nixon. Indeed, the film's lone selling point is Frank Langella's beautifully mannered and compulsively watchable performance. It's a nifty depiction of a rarefied breed of sharp-witted shark, but it's hardly a close approximation of Nixon. Langella bears very little physical resemblance to the jowly one, and his voice has none of the jittery intensity and precious little of the oiliness that defined our (until recently) most-despised Chief Executive.
Langella and Michael Sheen reprise the roles they created on the stage in London and New York, but something essential is lost in translation. The drama surrounding Frost's 1977 series of television interviews with Nixon was palpable in the theater, but it's banal and contrived onscreen. We could care less about the financial risk Frost took by proceeding without enough backing from sponsors -- not least because we know Sir David Frost, as he is known today, made out just fine -- and the showdown between the TV lightweight and the political heavyweight isn't quite the kind of underdog story that inspires mythic poetry.
What's truly annoying, however, is Howard's lugubrious pacing. The first third of the movie, where we get to know Frost and the groundwork for the interviews is laid, should be bright, buoyant and bouncy, reflecting the joie de vivre of a carefree playboy. (I'm thinking of the sunny briskness of the opening reels of Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can.) Then, with the introduction of the cave-dwelling monster (who actually lives in a San Clemente mansion overlooking the ocean), the film would take on an ominous darkness leading up to the titanic showdown.
In a sense, Frost/Nixon is the anti-Milk. While Gus Van Sant made the most alive and vibrant film he could of the Harvey Milk saga, Howard overinflates his minor meeting with portentous pauses and sanctimonious seriousness. It's a ridiculous and occasionally laughable approach, not to mention insulting to our intelligence. Frost/Nixon is a con job in the first degree, and shame to any awards voters who are taken in by it.
When all's said and done, the movie's lacquered finish, even enhanced with some heavy-handed Vietnam-Iraq parallels, isn't enough to obscure the fact that the Frost-Nixon conversations are a tiny footnote in history with little contemporary resonance. Only a filmmaker who thinks he's a contenda would turn a footnote into the high-toned hokum of Frost/Nixon.
Frost/Nixon opens Friday, December 12, 2008 in San Francisco, and everywhere on Dec. 25.