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Loves dogs, hates the Constitution: Langella in Frost/Nixon.

Dueling With Dick

By Shawn Stone

Frost/Nixon

Directed by Ron Howard

 

If you were born after 1965, here’s the only thing you need to know before seeing Frost/Nixon: You know how disgusted you are with the wars in the Middle East, how miserable you feel about the lives lost, and how angry and tired you are with the current president of the United States? That’s how disgusted and miserable and angry and tired the majority of Americans were in the mid-1970s with Richard M. “Tricky Dick” Nixon, the first U.S. president forced to resign in disgrace.

Ron Howard begins Frost/Nixon, the vastly entertaining film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s London and Broadway stage success, with more of a specific history lesson. It’s probably necessary; and, in the catalog of Howard’s cinematic sins, it is only a venial one.

Unlike George W. Bush, who apparently is too wrong to know how wrong he is, Nixon was a tragic figure. Nixon was a ruthless political operator, a bigot, a drunk and a warmonger, and, figuratively speaking, he raped the Constitution. Nonetheless, he had some greatness in him, and his twisted, miserable soul is pitiable precisely because he knew it was twisted and miserable. When it came to crushing his enemies, no law—or sacred presidential oath—would restrain him.

And, thanks to a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, he never had to explain his lawbreaking conduct to the American people.

That’s where Frost/Nixon begins, and where Brit TV producer-interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen, less stodgy than the real Frost) comes in. It’s 1977, three years after the resignation. Nixon (Frank Langella) is in need of money—and he wants to rehabilitate his reputation. Nixon bypasses offers from real journalistic outlets (sound familiar?) and agrees to a series of four interviews with Frost, a man Nixon considers a lightweight.

Frost is a canny guy; as Sheen portrays him, he’s confident in his abilities, even if no one else is. He has the single-mindedness necessary to go on after his financial backers either fail to materialize or drift away; to Frost, Nixon is simply the ultimate “get,” and he has no idea of the magnitude of the man he’s up against.

The interviews start badly. Nixon quickly takes the upper hand. It seems never to have occurred to Frost, busy as he is with parties and film premieres and beautiful women (all presented with great amusement by Howard), that having his dogged assistants simply draw up a list of questions would not be enough.

Langella is overwhelming as Nixon: He has the stoop, the intelligence, the arrogance, the awkward charm and brutal cunning of the man who was on TV all the time when I was a kid.

The rest of the cast (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt as Frost’s men; Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s right-hand man) are solid.

Ron Howard has never been the most subtle director, but at his best—Apollo 13 and a few other films that do not star Russell Crowe—he lets the drama speak for itself. When Frost finally gets his act together and confronts Nixon about the Watergate cover-up in the final encounter, the editing is invisible and the drama full-force. Langella becomes that shrunken monster, and the American people get their confession.

It makes one wish for two things: that Frank Langella win an Oscar, and George W. Bush realize that he, too, has something deeply shameful to confess.

Babes at Arms

Bride Wars

Directed by Gary Winick

The initial idea had merit. Two women, best friends, are obsessed with having the perfect wedding at New York’s Plaza Hotel, only to find out that a clerical error has booked both shindigs at the very same time. Given the success of shows like Whose Wedding Is It Anyway and Bridezillas, not to mention the massive media attention given celebrity nuptials, it would seem that the time is right for a comedy like Bride Wars to skewer the lavish excess, the fake traditionalism and the desire by a large number of women to be queen for a day. And this is a day that comes complete with an amazing gown, a rock, an entourage of fawning attendants and the attention of a few hundred of the bride’s closest whatever. Sadly, Bride Wars misses every opportunity to tip the sacred cow that the wedding industry has become, instead giving us the unpalatable, and vaguely sexual, image of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway wrestling in tulle.

BFFs Emma (Hathaway) and Liv (Hudson) are the type who call each other scores of times throughout the day. Emma is a lowly schoolteacher; her proposal comes over Chinese takeout and Bud in front of the TV. Liv is an aggressive corporate lawyer, and effectively manhandles her hedge-fund boytoy when he doesn’t propose fast enough. Not for the last time, one can’t help but wonder what these two women have in common to sustain this level of friendship.

The hidden cracks are revealed when the aforementioned administrative snafu occurs, and Emma, showing rare backbone, refuses to change her date. Suddenly, Liv—who apparently was, dare I say it, chubby as a girl—is receiving tantalizing gift baskets of chocolate, cookies and flavored butters. Emma’s ballroom dance class is mysteriously switched to hip-hop. Emma tampers with Liv’s hair dye, creating a Smurfette-meets-Edvard Munch nightmare, and Liv changes Emma’s sunkissed self-tanner for Doritos. Only one “punk” comes close to touching a nerve, which is when Emma sends a “before” picture of Liv to accompany their hometown paper’s nuptial announcements. Having grown up in a small town, where reading the weekly wedding announcements was something everybody did—and back then they included lavish descriptions of gowns and floral arrangements—I could relate to the horror of having anybody think you hadn’t done as well as you want them to think. It’s the only time where screenwriters Greg DePaul, Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael dare to conjure why we still cling to the idea of nuptial perfection.

Despite the fact that it’s downright impossible not to like Anne Hathaway, her trademark velvet eyes and easy smile do little to make us care whether she gets her big day. Hudson is completely unrecognizable, weighed down by rectangular bangs and so much eyeliner that she appears to be on the lam from transvestite night at a second-rate club. Her Liv, who could have been a delightful package of Type-A energy and innate self-consciousness, is just an annoying bitch. The bridegrooms, who are nameless because they are so insignificant, are like the grooms that used to come in bridal paper-doll sets—the guy mannequin got two or three outfits to register what role he was supposed to play to accompany the bride in one of her 30 costume changes. At one point, the script calls for Emma’s guy to evoke a kind of antique he-man quality, as a word of warning that maybe he isn’t the best hubby material. Such clumsy attempts at introducing drama are ham-fisted at best. Nobody fares well, not even when the brides get pugilistic with each other mid-ceremony—ending up lying side by side, panting and flush, suggesting postcoital bliss. Emma walks the orphaned Liv down the aisle, but it’s a wonder that either of them don’t push that guy in the tux out of the way, since at this point, it looks like theirs is the true love story. And even that wouldn’t merit the waste of time that is Bride Wars.

—Laura Leon


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