Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Frost/Nixon

I'd describe this film as competently constructed and occasionally powerful, but never quite reaching the level of brilliance it seems to be striving for. Onscreen, the bulk of the accolades and achievements of the piece can be attributed to Frank Langella and his powerful portrayal of Richard Nixon. He is a force, physically occupying the figure he is recreating with incredible commitment, and making Nixon aggravating as a foil for the "good guys," yet charismatic and fascinating as well. It's very impressive how Langella is able to make Nixon an arrogant, unlikable bore in one scene, but a lonely and thoroughly broken old man in the next, garnering both our scorn and our sympathy; and when Langella lets loose with his full rage, it's a sight to behold. Unfortunately this is a movie with a premise built on two men having an exchange, and no matter how well Langella holds up his part of the bargain, Michael Sheen's failure to do the same cripples the proceedings. Sheen has a certain witless charm, but he gets lost in playing the fop to the point where it's impossible to buy him as a credible threat to Langella's Nixon, which at some point we must. His performance is fine for that first portion where Frost is supposed to be over his head, but when he is supposed to flip the switch, he fails, and things fall apart--it feels like Austin Powers is interrogating Richard Nixon. Outside of the title pairing, there are two particularly strong showings from Kevin Bacon as a Nixon aid who displays near-zealot-like devotion to his boss and Sam Rockwell as the pissed off liberal assistant to Frost who drags the best scenes out of Sheen. Two other things for which I must give Frost/Nixon credit: it's an adaptation of play which displays none of the awkwardness some transitions to film suffer and it doesn't fall into the trap of shoehorning a love story into the plot any more than it has to. A good movie, but not a great one, with one incredible performance.

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