Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

The supporting cast is largely underutilized, I thought.  Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are good with what they are given, but other than their initial scene are mostly just whiny.  Rebecca Hall is used as eye candy.  I did like Kevin Bacon’s character, though.

It would therefore seem that if Peter Morgan wanted to write to please me, I’d recommend doing a movie where the action takes  place in no more than two or three rooms.  I wouldn’t consider space or time to be strengths of his, but if he could instead channel his energies away from broad events and focus on the intricacies of his characters, I’d be more than willing to give that movie a whirl.  He does do well with embattled leaders.  This movie will mark, in all likelihood, the third such character to receive a leading actor nomination (though it may be the first to lose), and that’s not a coincidence.  It is just that I don’t think Morgan does a great job telling the story around the character.

I’m totally on board with a Frank Langella Best Actor nomination.  Which definitely reminds me of last year’s Starting Out in the Evening, and how it gave Langella Oscar buzz for like three seconds.  Man, when is that movie going to come up in conversation again?

The film seems headed for a Best Picture nomination.  Which it doesn’t deserve, I’d argue.  Sure, it is benefiting from the weak field.  But its biggest strength may be that it is a generally solid movie unlikely to elicit a strong reaction in either direction.  In a year with relatively few movies over which people are obsessing, the middle ground is a fine path to a nomination.

Morgan will likely get an Adapted Screenplay nomination.  I’m not on board, of course, but it isn’t upsetting.  Which could be a tag line for the 2008 Oscar season, I suppose.

And finally, Ron Howard is right on the bubble for nabbing his second Best Director nomination.  I can’t really speak to that, so I won’t.