November 16, 2008

Frost / Nixon (11/16/08)

Lettergrade: B-

I think I liked Frost / Nixon... Is it weird that I'm not entirely sure? The movie's subject material certainly plays directly to a number of my interests -- I'm infinitely fascinated by politicians, their relationship to the media, and with Richard Nixon in particular -- but whenever we talk about historical dramatizations, I'm always unsure if I like movie because of the events that are represented or if the movie is good in and of itself.

I seem to wonder that especially often during Ron Howard movies, many of which fall into this docudrama category. They're always very well-shot and professionally made and everything, but there's usually something intangible missing too that somehow keeps them away from excellence. He's also a bit inconsistent: I really enjoyed Parenthood, Apollo 13, and Cinderella Man, for example, but if you compare that with other pictures on his resumé like the strangely inert Far And Away, the lukewarm A Beautiful Mind, and the abominable, unforgivable live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas shitbomb, it's hard to tell if he was merely stumbling on the bad ones or if he happened to get lucky on the good ones. Before we went into this movie, I told my wife about my theory that Ron Howard seems to alternate good movies with sorta-sucky ones. "What was his last movie?" she asked. "The Di Vinci Code," I answered. "Wow, this one should be great then!"

And regardless of my misgivings about Howard and his handling of screen material, the Frost / Nixon story is a great one. Michael Sheen (who has played Tony Blair in a couple movies now, including 2006's The Queen), plays the Austin Powersish David Frost, who hosts a number of variety shows and other TV fluff around the globe. After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigns the Presidency in August of 1974 amidst the Watergate scandal, Frost is inspired to seek him out for his first post-Presidency interview. Of course, he's not the only journalist to do so, but Nixon, desperately wanting to repair his public image, agrees after his staff sizes Frost up as a light-weight and guesses the interview will consist of soft-ball questions that can be easily outmaneuvered.

During their initial meeting at Nixon's California home, the ex-President treats Frost to his trademark intimidation head-games, and describes their forth-coming series of interviews as a "duel." This scares Frost into bringing in expert advisors Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell) to help with the preparation. Reston in particular holds fierce animosity toward Nixon and only agrees to participate if Frost intends to give Nixon "the trial he never had." The movie proceeds as a battle of wits between the two men, staged primarily on the interview set, with Frost desperately trying to outsmart the seasoned political master. Frost put up considerable money in order to lure Nixon out in the first place, most of it from his own fortune, and the tension is enhanced by the fact that no major network seems especially interested in buying the show, meaning there's a good chance the interview won't even air anyway and Frost will be financially ruined.

The script was written by Peter Morgan and is based on his stage-play of the same name. Historical dramas about recent world leaders seem to be his speciality as he has also written 2006's The Queen and The Last King Of Scotland in addition to The Other Boylen Girl earlier this year. I have no idea how much of the stage version was directly translated for this film incarnation, but it feels like a good percentage probably was. One clear addition is the slightly awkward pseudo-documentary vignettes toward the beginning where the actors talk directly to the camera in the interest of setting the movie up. Most of the film, however, is confined to a few key sets, allowing Sheen and Langella, reprising their roles from the stage version, to really show their stuff.

I believe the filmmakers misjudged the audience's interest in Frost to a certain degree, focusing much more on him than on Nixon, the movie's 500 lb gorilla. Langella's performance doesn't attempt a direct impersonation of Nixon, really, and it honestly took me some time to get used to him. Nevertheless, he does manage to carry the gravitas of the inimitable ex-President, much like Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone's Nixon, and perhaps when we're talking about a figure who runs the risk of falling into silly caricature, that's the best we can ask for.

Another problem is that in spite of those faux-documentary segments, the movie fails to give a clear sense of the national mood toward Nixon at the time. In the promotional materials for the picture, Howard talks about the anger everyone felt toward Nixon post-Watergate, and how the Frost interviews were really cathartic for him on a personal level as well as for the country. Strangely, the film fails to convey this emotion almost completely, under the assumption, I guess, that the audience would largely supply it themselves.

Context is everything here, and downplaying it is a problem. I understand why the film would want to avoid rehashing the case against Nixon, but a better understanding of why guys like Zelnick and Reston - our only stand-ins for the general public - wanted a confession so badly in the first place might have resulted in Nixon's final interview with Frost having more of an impact. The picture is more in "David v. Goliath" territory without this key component. You have a stake in what the outcome means for the people in the movie, but the way the story is staged fails to address even the promise made by tag-line on the movie's poster: "400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth." The movie is about the forensics of what happened rather than what those 400 million got from the interviews and how they felt about it.

The picture has clearly been timed to coincide with the last few months of the George Bush Presidency, and Howard knows that the audience will likely see some parallels in that W. is on-track to leave office with a large and angry public hungry for explanations and answers too. The movie certainly gains some power from its timing, but I don't believe a direct comparison is what the filmmakers had in mind. Instead, Frost / Nixon, in a very muddled way, seems to be about the public thirst for accountability. Nixon never had to face any legal charges for what he did in office - and W. may not either - but the call for Nixon to sit in a chair and be asked some tough questions about what happened and why never faded with time, and Nixon, despite his dark, brooding secrecy and well-known resistance to talking about the subject, ultimately could not keep from answering them. The movie isn't quite a grand-slam, but then I can't imagine that Nixon's quasi-apology was entirely satisfying for the public at the time either.

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