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Frost / Nixon (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2009
ImageIt was the unlikeliest of scenarios: a British talk show host, David Frost (Michael Sheen), was gearing up to interview disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). None of the networks wanted a part of it, but Frost, ever determined, backed the project with his own money, and that of friends and smaller investors. Despite a decent team of investigators, it at first looked like Frost was going to throw softballs Nixon’s way. The entire success of the project depended upon Frost getting Nixon to own up to his culpability in the Watergate scandal. Would Frost be able to break through Nixon’s defenses, his many years of political savvy being brought to bear in a series of four interviews? Would he make history or simply be a footnote?

, director Ron Howard’s dramatization of those events, is a simple film. The title alone dictates the terms of the piece. This is about two men, one strong willed and domineering, the other light hearted and frivolous. Howard spends a little bit of time on the setup, the supporting characters, and other quirks, but it’s mostly window dressing. The heart of the piece is about Nixon’s hunger for another challenge, another duel, and Frost attempting to provide it.

The casting of such a film, based on a play by Peter Morgan, who also penned the screenplay, is absolutely crucial. Frank Langella steps up to the plate as Nixon, playing him as the 800 pound gorilla who isn’t sure he wants to be seen that way. Langella’s at his best when he’s playing Nixon the man, not Nixon the statesman. The personal moments, where he’s unsure of a world that appears to be passing him by, cements the character in your mind. It doesn’t feel as impassioned as Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, but Langella offers a sense of contemplation and regret that Hopkins never did.

Michael Sheen is the other major player as the flashy David Frost. Sheen, acclaimed for his performance in The Queen and most recently seen in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a very likeable and malleable actor. Ever since seeing him in the first Underworld, I’ve been a fan, following his career with interest. In fact, his involvement as Frost is the only reason I bothered to see the movie at all, given that I generally find Ron Howard’s films to be reductive and unnecessarily crowd-pleasing. Sheen doesn’t disappoint here, walking the fine line between living the Hollywood high life and genuine interest in the outcome of the interviews. Frost is the true lynchpin of the flick, bringing all the disparate threads together with charm and class.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Matthew Macfayden as John Birt, Frost’s producer and confidante. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell play Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr., Frost’s investigative team, determined to get Nixon to crack. Perhaps the best of the supporting actors is Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s right hand man. Bacon is terse with Frost and his team, but supportive with Nixon to the point of childish adulation. Bacon plays Brennan as a man who practically worships Nixon, and clearly sees him as the most important man in the world, regardless of his shortcomings. Bacon generally underplays the character, not letting him jump to the forefront and overshadow the other actors. It’s a measured and impressive performance.

Ron Howard tends to minimize any stylistic aspects of the piece, content to let it play out in a generally straightforward manner. In fact, the few times he does try and broaden the visual scope of the picture, the results are rather obvious and take away from the narrative thrust of the film. This is material best played and delivered simply, and Howard is generally content to do just that. He gives his actors room to maneuver, and in the process ends up with a film that is a cut above his standard body of work, free of excess guile and audience pandering.

Perhaps the film’s weakest moment is also its most important. Frost, having done three of the four interviews and finding them woefully lacking in substance, finds himself on the phone with a slightly drunk Nixon, who reveals more of his personality than he intends. The scene is meant to be the bravura acting spotlight for Langella, and is undoubtedly vital as the turning point where Frost went from blasé to committed, but it feels too much like obligatory Oscar-bait to really sit comfortably with the rest of the film. It’s not bad, it’s just too on the nose for my comfort. Still, the few gripes aside, Frost/Nixon is a strong film that I enjoyed far more than I expected to.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

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