Trailer Time: They Used To Call Him "Tricky" Kid

Anyone catch "Frost/Nixon" when it played on Broadway in 2007? I did not, but heard good things, so I'm grateful that Ron Howard has adapted Peter Morgan's play for the big screen. And I'm very glad he's kept intact the show's casting of Michael Sheen (so good as the oily, passionate Tony Blair in The Queen, also written by Morgan) as David Frost, and the sad, magisterial, rather eerie Frank Langella as the second-worst President in American history (as in so much of his life, Nixon finds himself a runner-up, a position he both resented and used as a terrible motivation).

My mother swears that, when she was pregnant with me and watching the Watergate hearings, she could feel me kicking in frustration every time Tricky Dick's name was mentioned. Historically, I know this can't be true-- I was born in April of 1973, and the hearings began in May-- but I like to think there's some kind of more mystical truth about it, because it just feels so right. I hate Nixon with the passion of a thousand suns, and yet find myself utterly fascinated by him at the same time. The longing, the rage, the doubt, the paradoxical mixture of brilliance and insecurity, ego and self-loathing, deep bigotries and diplomatic skill-- he seems both unknowable and an open book (albeit one written by Lovecraft). And he was a central figure in that 30-year period (roughly 1946-1974) that is one of the most politically interesting in our nation's history.

I'm interested in anything new about Nixon, so when I read that the trailer for the new film was out, I immediately went to YouTube to watch it. There's something ironically appropriate about the layers involved here: I'm watching a YouTube upload, of a trailer that played in theaters, for a film adaptation of a West End/Broadway stage play, that's based on a series of television interviews, in which Nixon himself constantly threw up smokescreens of disingenuousness and legalese to mask his own fears, lies, and passions (especially about the recording technologies of the White House). Which, in an odd way, means that the most "accurate" way to see the trailer is in the television-shaped box that YouTube provides. This sense of screens within screens within screens (and how they both obscure and reveal detail) is captured in the trailer by the multiple miniature television screens that act as segues in the montage-- those segues look less like TV technology circa 1977 than something out of ZooTV, but definitely capture the media overload of which Nixon's career was both victim and beneficiary. Sheen's Frost has a kind of Hugh Grant puppy dog quality that works very well in those clips, particularly when his manner suddenly turns cold in the final seconds of the trailer (Langella's response is priceless). He looks well-supported by Oliver Platt, and I like the Sorkinesque rhythms that Morgan and Howard seem to be generating.

But, of course, it's Langella who is truly the compelling figure here. He gets the vocal ticks, the slumped shoulders, the creepy smile that always signified hate more than joy-- and he looks like he's using those as tools to mine the depths of Nixon's soul. No one's ever going to completely penetrate the oddness and opacity of Richard Nixon, or completely untangle his countless contradictions. But by putting them on display with such charismatic strangeness, the trailer for Frost/Nixon suggests that Langella understands the central role of rage and resentment in Nixon's career: that they weren't responses that elicited empathy or generated catharsis, but weapons and masks that only plunged Nixon into greater darkness, as if he were the ideal figure for a John Cassevettes character study.


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