It isn’t exactly the kind of glowing review you’d want if your film is at the top of the list where Oscar handicaps are concerned which, I’ll admit, isn’t saying much. True that the subject matter to head straight for the heart of the Academy demo, it’s probably going to need a bit more than Todd McCarthy seems prepared to give it:
Although it all pays off in a potent and revelatory final act rife with insights into the psychology and calculations of power players, the initial stretch is rather dry and prosaic. Perhaps needlessly adopting a cinematic equivalent of the play’s direct-to-audience address, Howard “interviews” several of the characters, witness-style, about the events, which only serves to make the film feel somewhat choppy, half like a documentary at first. Approach also imposes an overly predictable editing style on the whole film, one in which the cuts come precisely on the expected beats, when a fleet, syncopated rhythm would have moved the exposition along with more flair. It might even be that the film could have done without the talking heads altogether.
But then there’s this:
The only slightly disconcerting aspect of Sheen’s turn is his appearance; with his longish, brushed-back hair, sideburns, arched eyebrows and occasionally pursed lips, he calls to mind Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” For her part, as coiffed here, [Rebecca] Hall looks quite like Carly Simon.
Still, he likes Michael Sheen and of course Frank Langella:
The interview excerpts are obviously the real thing, and have been staged with great attention to how they actually looked. Where the script really shines is in the incidental backstage conversation, especially how Nixon smalltalks Frost and catches him off-guard with remarks about the host’s presumed sex life and habits. These private exchanges culminate in the work’s most compelling sequence, in which an inebriated Nixon, prior to the final interview, phones Frost with a late-night ramble stressing their perceived similarities as fellows from modest circumstances looked down upon by “the snobs.” “We still feel like the little man. The loser they told us we were,” the one-time commander-in-chief insinuates, just as he promises that the final session will be “no holds barred.”
By these final scenes, Langella has all but disappeared so as to deliver Nixon himself, leading to a melancholy ending defined, as predicted, by the triumph of one man and the virtual vanquishing of the other.
Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt gives a similarly respectful but not enthusiastic review:
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who originated the roles onstage, effectively play Frost and Nixon without trying terribly hard to imitate either. Sheen doesn’t bother to exaggerate Frost’s on-camera tics and vocal inflections. Rather he plays breezy desperation, a performer who is smooth on the surface yet roiling inside, desperate to climb back into showbiz heaven through this interview. Langella permits prosthetic makeup to get the Nixon jowls and gives his voice a Nixonian tenor, but otherwise his is a study in power lost and utter loneliness.
Also, why is the film being reviewed now and released in December? Kind of weird, that.