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‘Frost/Nixon’ belabors the obvious

“Frost/Nixon” undercuts some of the film’s most powerful moments by tossing in scenes where the characters tell the audience what it has already seen.
/ Source: contributor

You know how a comedian can completely ruin his own joke by stopping to explain the punch line? The filmmakers behind “Frost/Nixon” do the same thing, undercutting some of the film’s most powerful moments by tossing in scenes where the characters tell the audience what it has already seen.

Does Hollywood not trust moviegoers’ intelligence? Or does director Ron Howard’s TV background make him assume that everything has to be repeated, just in case someone was in the kitchen making a sandwich the first time?

It’s a pity there’s so much redundancy going on, because “Frost/Nixon,” as the title suggests, manages a real power when TV personality David Frost (played here by Michael Sheen) and disgraced former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) butt heads. Frost, of course, made television history by paying Nixon to do a series of one-on-one sit-downs, and watching these two media-savvy figures go toe-to-toe made for fascinating TV.

The interview segments — and the off-camera negotiations and conversations — between Frost and Nixon are easily the highlights of the film, but Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (adapting his own play) dilute the rest of the movie with a tiresome underdog story about Frost and his accomplices bucking the odds, fighting to get their show on the air and looking for what Sarah Palin would call the ultimate “gotcha” question.

We’ve seen that story a million times before — even if it plays like a fantasy in this era of a “fair and balanced” media that looked elsewhere while the president raped the Constitution — and it takes time away from the fascinating interplay between the two lead actors. Sheen, best known in the U.S. for his portrayal of Tony Blair in “The Queen” (also written by Morgan), plays Frost as an vain showman who finds himself in the unfamiliar waters of real journalism, equally as interested in making history as he is in lining up sponsors.

Langella makes an extraordinary Nixon — while the actor doesn’t much resemble the president, he gets the voice, the rounded shoulders and the jowly persistence just right. The actor achieves that transcendence by which you forget you’re not watching the real guy, something that Sean Penn’s overrated “Milk” performance never manages. While Langella may not be the cinema’s finest Tricky Dick — that title still belongs to Philip Baker Hall’s powerhouse performance in Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” — his portrayal packs a wallop.

If only someone could have talked Morgan and Howard into trimming all the sideline stuff. Even with a strong ensemble of actors (Toby Jones, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt), “Frost/Nixon” dims when Langella and Sheen aren’t the focus. It’s full of the kind of slick, shallow, Oscar-friendly filmmaking for which Howard has received undue acclaim, but the movie only hints at what could have been a sharper, smarter look at politics and the media.