Sunday, January 25, 2009

"Frost/Nixon" review

Say hello, good evening and welcome to one of the greatest political movies ever.

That bit of glorious hyperbole doesn't come from me, of course, but from the British tabloid The Sun. My sentiment would be, this was a pretty darn entertaining flick, but I really wish I could have seen the play.

The first question I always ask when I see a movie that's taken directly from the stage is, "did it gain anything in the transfer"? In this case, I'd say a conditional yes, with the big minus that it also adds one very unnecessary distraction.

Either at the urging of director Ron Howard or from the mind of playwright and screen writer Peter Morgan (I have no way of knowing which, frankly), the movie adds to the main dynamic of the buildup, actual showdown and aftermath of David Frost's interview with by then ex-President Richard Nixon a series of documentary-style, cut-in interviews with the other supporting players that only manages to take us out of the main story without adding any real insight or entertainment value.

Morgan, as he did with "The Queen" and his almost-as-good TV movie about Labor Party politics, "The Deal," is best at creating living history, and more specifically filling in the intimate details in the dynamic between historical figures who are much more alike than they originally know. Adding the mockumentary touches only dilutes the fact that he's written another whip-smart screenplay and handed it over to two first-rate actors, here as on stage, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.

Sheen excels at playing characters, as he did with Tony Blair in both "The Queen" and "The Deal," who are in need of constant attention, seemingly aware of their own talents but still needing to have them reinforced time and time again. He captures perfectly just how insecure Frost was going into the Nixon interview (which he now claims cost $37 million pounds!), and the play's/movie's biggest strength is in naturally bringing out just how much Langella's Nixon felt the same way.

Mr. Langella has received a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Nixon, and it's well-deserved. It's no mean feat that he manages to make us almost feel sorry for Nixon without hedging one bit on the traits that brought about his fall from grace. Unlike Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the former president in Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which I found far too often to be a caricature, you never see Langella as anything but Nixon's big ball of vanity, arrogance (of course) and, surprisingly, loneliness. It's that last trait that makes the final act of "Frost/Nixon" the best one, a quiet moment when Frost and Nixon meet several months later at Nixon's compound, La Casa Pacifica.

Which isn't saying that the pre-game action and the showdown itself lack the appropriate dramatic tension. Langella and Sheen (and, of course, Morgan) give their exchanges a wicked humor, but almost as much credit here should go to the uniformly solid supporting cast.

Similarly to "Man on Wire" (a better 2008 movie that, sort of, actually is a documentary), Morgan and Howard set up the staging of the interview as much as a heist than as any attempt at actual journalism. And any heist needs a solid slate of co-conspirators on either side, led here on the left by Sam Rockwell as Nixon antagoniste James Reston Jr. and on the right by Kevin Bacon as Nixon's post-White House chief of staff, Jack Brennan. They get the meatiest supporting parts because their convictions set up the main conflict at the movie's core, getting the truth vs. hiding it all costs, and they both just run with it. Toby Jones is (as usual) just a hoot as Nixon's "literary agent" Irving "Swifty" Lazar, and though I always like to see Rebecca Hall, she's given little to do here as Frost's girlfriend, Caroline Cushing.

In the end, I'd say Ron Howard's movie would have been great rather than very good if, like the superior "Doubt," it had had the courage to trust the inherent strength of its source work. As it is, it is indeed a nearly first-rate bit of political theater, but not for me in the category of Best Picture. If I had a vote, which so far exists only in my mind, I'd give that final slot to Darren Aronofsky for "The Wrestler" or Guillaume Canet for "Tell No One."

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to do my cooking for the week and then see Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," which I'm really looking forward to. Peace out.


Mercurie said...

I really wanted to see this movie, remembering vaguely the whole Frost/Nixon interview. It's good to hear it will be as good as I wanted it to be.

Jake Mabe said...

I saw this movie yesterday (it finally opened in Knoxville) and found it to be excellent. I am a longtime Nixon buff, and was pleased that this film is (in general) true to history and also refreshingly well balanced.

As you say, the concluding scene at La Casa Pacifica is the best of the film -- and quite engaging. The image of Nixon gazing out at the Pacific, trapped in his solitude,stayed with me long after the end credits.

For once, a film lived up to my preconceived notions about it. An entertaining flick.

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