Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Like Doubt, Frost/Nixon is a filmed play, and outside of a few minor cinematic flourishes and fleshed-out edges it's obvious from the word go. But in contrast to Doubt's clumsy, blunted attempts at thematic depth, Frost/Nixon is a completely straightforward (arguably too much so at points) chronicling of a real event; everything is right up there on the screen. And it's successful not so much because of the story surrounding the Frost/Nixon interviews as because the two leading actors lend the interview itself the depth and weight to turn it into a riveting intellectual duel, a classic David & Goliath story.

As the film depicts it, when David Frost suggests the possibility of an interview with Nixon, the shamed ex-president sees it as chance to deftly juggle and parry softball questions, a chance to vindicate himself in the eyes of history using a lightweight talk show host as a stepping stone. From the get-go the momentum is on Nixon's side of the interview and Frost's plans seem to be failing. But (real-life spoiler?) in the final stage of the interview Frost comes at him with unexpected questions and evidence, and Nixon's defenses crumble for a brief but essential moment.

Now, I'm nowhere near as familiar with Richard Nixon, his presidency, Watergate, or the aftermath as the generations before me, nor would I ever pretend to be (I was a little kid when he died after all), so I can't comment from any experience on the anger at Nixon after Ford's pardoning or the degree to which the Frost interviews actually gave any closure to the American people, but the movie gives it the weight of an unofficial trial, a moment of truth for Richard Nixon wherein he blinked and tacitly admitted guilt. However much fidelity it may have to real events, it makes for one of the finest cinematic climaxes of 2008, a real breath-holding moment of peaking tension and relief.

All credit goes to Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. It's a two-man show - yeah, there's Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, and others in supporting roles, but it really comes down to Frost and Nixon alone in the interview. Sheen does a good job playing the lovable underdog but it's Langella who has the bigger challenge and brings out the big guns, embodying Tricky Dick with screen-filling electricity. It's incredibly broad and theatrical and exact the opposite of, say, Mickey Rourke's subtle method acting in The Wrestler, but he plays the gradually crumbling Goliath with fire that warranted his Best Actor nomination.

All is not well, however. As I said, this is a blunt, straightforward movie, too much so at points. Rather than leaving certain (however obvious) things unsaid, Ron Howard gives the actors documentary-style talking heads intercut through the film, giving sometimes exhausting and unnecessary exposition on the Frost/Nixon interview.

Beyond that, the screenwriter (and original playwright) Peter Morgan has inserted a completely fictional drunken, rambling, confessional phone call from Nixon to Frost before the final portion of the interview, which is not only silly and superfluous extrapolation, but which, worse, implies that the interview's shifting momentum was due not to Frost and his team's own skill and preparation but due to a drunken mistake from Nixon that never happened. These flaws (which could honestly just be cleanly edited out of the movie without a trace, and would still leave a 105-minute movie) unfortunately hold Frost/Nixon back from potential greatness to the level of goodness.

Also, pardon my bluntness: I'll love Ron Howard forever for his role in Arrested Development's inception (and Willow, of course), but his nomination for Best Director for this movie is a fucking joke. I'm not saying it's badly directed at all, but the centerpiece of the movie is two guys sitting across from each other in chairs in a suburban house, talking. Saving Private Ryan this is not.

All that said, it's still an often engaging, occasionally riveting, and exceptionally well-acted work. I'd definitely give it a recommendation, particularly to political buffs or anyone who, like me, didn't live any of this and for whom it's pure and fascinating history.

3 Stars out of 5

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