Despite generating a bunch of Oscar buzz immediately before its release, Frost/Nixon is not a good movie. It is not even a good Ron Howard movie, which is saying something. As the critics figured out pretty quick, "The Nixon Interviews" were a journalistic, not an historic, event, and not even Hans Zimmer's most self-important soundtrack can turn it into one.
(Oh, but it can try. Close your eyes for a minute, and Frost/Nixon might as well be Pearl fucking Harbor .)
So what, then, is this movie's point? Ron Howard doesn't know, and maybe we don't either.
After the jump, can we hope this live production turns out better than the movie?
One auspicious sign: The play has received better reviews than the movie it spawned, despite a run on Broadway starring the same fey nuisance who queered the rep of David Frost in the film (Frost was lightweight, but he certainly wasn't the wide-eyed Ragged Dick that Michael Sheen makes him out to be). Maybe it's because Ron Howard's a tool and playwright Peter Morgan isn't. Or maybe it's because some things are just better in a theater.
The challenges confronting Frost/Nixon are thus:
- Make the interviews, and the events leading up to them, seem exciting without trying to convince us that they're somehow a defining historical moment.
- Downplay the role of David Frost so that we're not forced to think of him as an equally interesting character as Nixon. The reasons for this are obvious: Frost is a smart, engaging, and probably very pleasant fellow, whereas Nixon was a neurotic monster who, along with Lee Atwater and very few other people, shaped the political landscape we all inhabit.
- Don't make Frost seem like an oversexed innocent, because he wasn't, and don't make Nixon seem like a cool, sinister mastermind, because he certainly wasn't.
- Teach us something.
- Don't descend into nostalgia.
- Don't play for cheap "gotcha" thrills when it comes to Nixon's on-camera breakdown. Yes, he was a bad guy, and yes, it's nice to see bad guys humiliated. But good theater tries to attack from the high ground, and comeuppance is always low.
(Incidentally, this is one mistake the movie didn't make. Onscreen, Nixon's meltdown is almost as unbearable for the viewer as it is for him. This is because, somehow, Langella makes the guy likable in a shambling, jowly way. As they say in the 21st Century, he's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with.)
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Morgan's play wisely avoids all attempts to explain the intricacies of the Watergate scandal or evaluate Nixon's presidency. Either subject is weighty enough for its own play.Caldwell should stick to character, character, character. If it does Frost/Nixon will rock.
Because as characters go, Nixon is a goldmine. Every time someone does a decent job of portraying him, it is utterly transporting. Anthony Hopkins, in Oliver Stone's Nixon, brought the man's Id right to the surface: all muttering and squirming and half-coherent resentments, clashing together in the mind of a man with no self-awareness at all. Langella's portrayal, in Frost/Nixon the film, is pure superego; those same impulses made conscious and animated by a viciously swift intelligence that long ago made piece with its own venality. If Caldwell's Frost/Nixon is done right, we may see something similar.
And that would be good. At base, Nixon was motivated by the same basic things that motivate everyone. He wanted a release from anxiety. He wanted to feel good about himself. Most of all, from his days as an Orthogonian at Whittier College on, he wanted acceptance. What made Nixon different from us (and not just a little different, but hugely, monstrously, mutant-ly different) is how villainously far he would go to achieve those ends, and how blind he was to the consequences of his striving. These deficiencies are not worth hating, but they are worth considering. Good theater doesn't need the bigness of a Ron Howard production, and the theater world has never tricked itself into believing, as Ron Howard apparently does, that a production must be world-historic to shake you to your core. Though the stage is larger than the big screen, it feels more intimate, and although it denies its audience the benefits of the closeup, it allows its audiences to come closer. And so Caldwell has an opportunity that Ron Howard pissed away: it can show us a Frost and Nixon that are neither historic forces nor idylls of innocence and corruption. It can show them as human beings. In other words, Caldwell can remind us of what all the best theater reminds us of: People are basically all the same, but that sure as hell doesn't mean they're simple.
Caldwell's Frost/Nixon opens Friday at The Count de Hoernle Theatre (7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton) and runs through February 8th. You can purchase tickets at 561-241-7432 or by clicking here.
-- Brandon K. Thorp