Wednesday, January 11, 2012

History With No Punches Pulled: Frost/Nixon Succeeds Admirably!

The Good: Great acting, Wonderful direction and character work
The Bad: Pacing at the beginning
The Basics: Despite some pacing issues that distract viewers from the emotional resonance, Frost/Nixon is a smart, powerful political interrogation film.

Sometimes, I am amused to do things out of order. It surprised me to find that I had not actually reviewed Frost/Nixon, despite loving it. So, there is some amusement to me that I end up posting my review of it after Michael Sheen's more recent film Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (reviewed here!), though having seen that film allows me to truly gush on the acting quality of Sheen. Having returned now from my second viewing of the film, I find myself eager to recommend that viewers catch it while they can. Frost/Nixon might not be a big budget effect film that seems to demand the big screen, but it is a solid film and it does more than a play does.

Indeed, while I often argue for the use of the medium - railing against such things as excessive voice-overs - I find I have no argument with Frost/Nixon. Instead, Frost/Nixon might well be the Ron Howard film that illustrates Howard lives up to the hype. In this film, Ron Howard captures perfectly the human emotion, the nuances and the subtle body language of two people who have gone to verbal war with one another.

Having resigned the presidency in disgrace, Richard M. Nixon has been pardoned yet America exists in a state of a crisis of conscience in its politics. In a self-exile from Washington and the Eastern states and their politics, Nixon seeks a way to make a comeback. David Frost, a television interviewer, is seeking a comeback as well. Having lost his television show in the United States, he now finds himself interviewing celebrities in Australia. Watching the numbers surrounding the collapse of the Nixon presidency and the potential viewership around Richard Nixon's post-presidency interviews, Frost concocts a plan to win that first interview.

Struggling to pull financiers together - because he is best known for far less serious interviews - Frost teams with James Reston Jr., Bob Zelnick and biographer John Birt to try to create a series of interviews that will allow Frost to give Nixon a public trial he never had. Nixon, defended by Jack Brennan and a small quintillion including Diane Sawyer, prepare to use the interviews to launch their return to Washington. And as the interviews begin, Frost finds himself deeply shaken and slow to counter the former President's verbal deflections and jabs. But as the lone day Watergate will be the subject approaches, Frost begins to marshal all his personal and financial resources to save the show.

Frost/Nixon has been said by many to be analogous to a chess match and in some ways, that is true. Equally true is that the film Frost/Nixon mirrors the interviews that are the subject of the movie in their form and pacing. The film and the interviews get off to something of a false start as both begin with an anticlimax: Nixon's resignation in the film and Frost's ambush of a question and realization that he may have gotten in over his head with the way he approached the former president. Then, as his friends research how to go after Nixon and Frost struggles to get funding for the program, the movie leaps ahead, much as the more nebulous middle interviews are omitted from the movie; this film is not telling that story. Then, like the movie's final half hour, the final Nixon/Frost interview is a rapid, no holds barred barrage between the two principles.

The chess match analogy works as well as the film takes quite a bit of time to establish the characters and the situation. Unfortunately, this is mostly preparing the board and moving the pieces into alignment; the real game does not start until the second half of the film. This does not work so well for the film as it meanders and is a bit slower as the mechanics of the arrangements behind the interviews are delved into much to the neglect of the characters, save David Frost who simply appears single-minded to an extreme that is possibly the best characterization he could get.

Indeed, while James, John and Bob fret about the specific questions, the early days on the film project and the money, Frost is concerned mostly with the money and making sure the project is completed. As a result, Frost is shown to be a character who is single-minded and truly has all of his livelihood running on the one project. While John Birt is obsessed with getting a confession and arranging a cathartic experience for the public, Frost is just trying to get a show made and he is content to leave the hardest parts for the end. But when forced to rise to the occasion, David Frost does and the impressive thing is that he is magnanimous in his victory, for what it is.

But for every bit that Frost is cunning and desperate, Nixon is cold and calculating. He strategizes well and it is easy to see why - despite the pre-interview attempt to block extensive inquiries by him - Jack Brennan is behind him once the cameras get rolling. Brennan is a military man and he handles Nixon after the fall and it is clear he has a lot riding emotionally on the status of Richard Nixon. And for his part, Nixon plays the game, unsettling David Frost early on and he has an easy quality to him that makes it seem at moments like he is not playing as deep of a game as he is.

It is director Ron Howard who makes sure the audience knows that Nixon is actually on his game and he does it subtly, by directing and editing the film to capture the small details. Panning slowly off Nixon to a dumfounded Frost early in one of the interviews, for example, Howard shows the viewer what is truly important - and it is not what Nixon is talking about then, it is the way he is talking and the effect it is having on David Frost. In the integral, climactic scenes of the film - which I shall not ruin for those who have not seen the previews - Howard captures the details, the looks in Nixon's eyes, the way Frost bites his tongue at the right moment and the patience to capture moments with silence in them. This is what makes the movie truly great.

This is not to say the film is flawless; far from it. Frost/Nixon takes a bit to get going and in its uncertain beginning, the viewer begins to wonder if this will be more like Charlie Wilson's War (reviewed here!) where the film is not about the events or the effects, but rather the behind-the-scenes exclusively. The difference, of course, is the difference between the show and the show behind the show. Frost/Nixon dallies in both stories, but it is definitely heavier in the process story for the bulk of the film, the fight to get the interviews made and aired. The actual interviews only comprise a small part of the film. As well, after the defining blows, the significant pieces are cleared from the board (in the chess metaphor for the movie), the movie goes on. The denouement is somewhat drawn out, but it does not feel extraneous.

But when the movie gets to them, the actors are given a huge chance to shine and explore their characters. Indeed, before the interviews actually begin within the film, the best acting arguably comes from actor Kevin Bacon. As Jack Brennan, Bacon is given to a very reserved array of facial expressions and on-screen emotions. Bacon has the ability to deliver his lines coldly and with a minimal amount of revelation and that plays perfectly to this type of character, the loyal bodyman. Bacon steals his scenes by not stealing them, by providing a subtle, constant presence that feels integral.

Frank Langella lives up to all of his hype as Richard Nixon. Classically trained and looking very little like the former president, Howard does not insult the viewer by pressing a fake nose on the actor and setting him before us. Instead, Langella hunches over, lowers his voice even more than usual and he, quite simply, sells it. There is not a moment he is on the screen that the viewer is pulled out to any of the many other roles that Langella has played. He is solidly and completely Richard Nixon in this film.

But it is hard not to rave over Michael Sheen in Frost/Nixon, despite all of the deserving praise being heaped upon Langella. Sheen, after all, is utterly convincing as the pasty-faced British journalist in this, with equal credibility as the werewolf slave-turned-king in the utterly dissimilar Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans. But this is the true essence of great acting; those who have seen the Underworld films would never guess that this is the same actor who played Lucien. That ability to so completely convince viewers of the reality of the character under both extremes is what defines an actor's range and Sheen has it. He plays this role with a deep, underlying sense of quiet seriousness and he illustrates he is exceptional.

On DVD, the film is impressively presented with decent sound and visual quality. As well, Ron Howard provides a full commentary and there is a behind-the-scenes featurette and deleted scenes. The bonus features are decent and pretty much what one expects from a drama of this caliber.

More than just great performances, Frost/Nixon has a multi-generational sense of sadness to it. I, for example, was too young to have seen the original Nixon interviews with David Frost air and my catharsis in watching this film is more vicarious. It is also a hopeful one, despite my feeling of once again being cheated by history. After all, it is hard for those of us who have become adults within the last decade and a half to not feel somewhat cheated watching Frost/Nixon; where is our David Frost to go after our generation's Nixon?

For other political works, please check out my reviews of:
The West Wing
All The King's Men


For other movie reviews, please check out my movie review index page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Good post...I will probably try to catch that movie at some point.

  2. Glad you liked it! Thanks so much for reading!