Frost/Nixon(1/3/2008)

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            Frost/Nixon is a film about a nation coming to grips with the career of a horrible war time president after he’s left office in disgrace.  How could that possibly be relevant to our times?  I ask that with all due sarcasm of course, it’s pretty obvious this moment in history is being brought up now because the nation is finally getting rid of another terrible president.  Few people are interested in defending Richard Nixon now, he did some good on broad foreign policy, but his handling of the Vietnam War and the way he dealt with descent at home was incredibly misguided.   Then of course there was Watergate, an event which was probably only the tip of this man’s iceberg of corrupt actions.  Yet, for all of Nixon’s faults there’s still something interesting about him, which is why there have probably been more movies about him then any other president of the twentieth century.  Frost/Nixon is the latest of these efforts; it chronicles the story behind Nixon’s first interview upon leaving office.

            The film begins with Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) resigning from office and flying away on a helicopter.  On the other side of the world an ambitious British talk show host named David Frost (Michael Sheen) watches Nixon exist stage left and is inspired, he points out how many people were watching and decides it would be a good business venture to seek an interview with the disgraced former president.  His television colleague John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) advises against this, pointing out that CBS had a standing offer with Nixon for $350,000 and that outbidding them wouldn’t be cheap.  Frost is undeterred and manages to land the interview but at a heavy personal expense.  Frost flies out to California and hires journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to help him prepare for the interview which is to last eight hours and be split up over four days, only the final two hour segment will deal with Watergate.

The film’s title indicates that this is very much a story of two halves, Frost and Nixon, of the two Nixon is significantly more interesting.  Many writers and filmmakers have turned Nixon into a sort of Shakespearian tragic figure.   Nixon’s paranoia is seen as a tragic flaw that brought down a man with good intentions.  This was a new and creative observation shortly after his resignation when people started writing about him, it was interesting when Robert Altman put together Secret Honor, and it was even interesting when Oliver Stone of all people managed to find a certain level of sympathy in his biopic.  After almost thirty-five years this isn’t such a novel idea, but it at least it’s worth telling, which is more then I can really say about the Frost half.

The David Frost of this film was no Bob Woodward; he was a fluffy talk show host who managed to strike the jackpot.  This is the main problem the film has; it goes too far in trying to make Frost into a David to Nixon’s goliath.  The film depicts Frost as an entrepreneur without much of a work ethic, he spends most of his time trying to get air-time and spends his time partying before his interviews rather than preparing.  The film then has the audacity to celebrate this man for finally doing his homework at the last minute the weekend before he’s supposed to nail Nixon to the wall.  It’s an incredibly Hollywood tactic, one that greatly lowers the viewer’s respect for the man and exists for no reason other than to add a bunch of fake and unneeded suspense to the story.  I don’t believe for a minute that Frost was really this unprofessional, especially with a project he has so much invested in, and if he was he has no business being celebrated. 

What’s more, I wasn’t really that impressed by the whole interview project to begin with.  The film more or less concedes that the first three interviews were failures, and the feeble confession he manages to squeeze out of Nixon by the end is hardly the grand slam the film seems to think it is.  More importantly, why should I care if Nixon is sorry about what he did?  It’s already been proven through other means that he was a crook, his confession does nothing to set the record straight about the events, it was little more than the typical plea for sympathy that common criminals ask for after they’ve already been convicted and want a lenient sentence.  Polls taken after the interviews aired in 1977 showed that 69% of the public still believed Nixon was covering up information; this was by no means the landmark media event the filmmakers seem to think it is.  It would be like if they released a movie thirty years from now called “Couric/Palin,” about that hilarious interview and depict it as some sort of amazing moment instead of the mild curiosity that it was.  Nixon certainly deserves better than to be compared to that joke of a candidate, but if you think about it Frost isn’t that far removed from Couric, they were both mediocre T.V. personalities who managed to perform slightly more professionally than people expected.

In spite of a premise that I don’t think is really worthy of all this fuss, the film could have still worked if it had been done right, but that wasn’t the case here.  I think part of the problem is that this is movie based on a play based on news reports based on real events, it’s been filtered too far and the filmmakers might have been better off starting from scratch.  The film suffers from the usual problems films have with stage adaptations, it’s told through a series of long conversations and isn’t meant to be cinematic.  Most stage adaptations like Doubt and Glengarry Glenross deal with this problem by not dealing with it, they go ahead and set the films in one building and as a result the audience can adjust and accept the movies for what they are.  Frost/Nixon doesn’t do this, it does everything it can to look like a normal movie while having all the same problems that stage adaptations have, thus emphasizing them rather than de-emphasizing them.

What’s worse, I don’t really think this is much of a script.  The film has a lot of really clunky exposition, it explains way too much while talking about its themes in very direct and inelegant ways.  This is exemplified by a scene right before the first interview where Nixon points out that he’ll be holding a handkerchief to wipe perspiration off the top of his lip; so far so good, that’s a nice reference, but the moment is completely ruined when he goes on to tell the same story about his televised debate with Kennedy that any educated viewer will have already heard dozens of times.  Peter Morgan and Ron Howard should have trusted the audience to make that connection without their long winded explanation.  There’s a lot of stuff like that here, later on the film spends entire scenes clumsily explaining all the movie’s themes rather than just leaving them there for the audience to pick up themselves.

Ultimately Ron Howard, a director I’ve never been a fan of, is responsible for a lot of the film’s problems.  Howard has a long history of making movies filled with Hollywood clichés and then making them very bland to boot.  Here he makes the mistake of trying to adopt a docudrama style which frankly torpedoes this entire movie.  The film frequently drops into faux-interviews with supporting characters giving talking head interviews that did nothing but interrupt the film’s pacing in order to make comments which, like a lot of the script, talk directly to the themes while giving patronizing clarifications about the on screen action.

The one thing about the film that really lives up to its pedigree is the acting.  Frank Langella doesn’t work particularly well as an impression; he doesn’t really that look that much like Nixon and his voice is a fairly caricatured.  Rather, Langella’s work excels here because he can deliver the emotional payoff that his scenes require.  Phillip Baker Hall’s work in Secret Honor remains the definitive Nixon performance, but Langella earns his place in the pantheon.  Sheen is also impressive, he doesn’t have a character with the same dramatic opportunities as Langella’s, but he does makes Frost a lot more likable then he should be.  Langella and Sheen both played their respective roles on stage in London and on Broadway before embarking on the film adaptation.  Ron Howard deserves kudos for using them for the film, I’m sure he was given pressure to cast people with a little more bankability but he made the right choice.

The supporting cast is also pretty good.  I especially like Sam Rockwell as a passionate author driven to give Nixon the tough interrogation he deserves, this character was a lot more interesting to me then David Frost and I wish he had more screen time.   John Birt and Bob Zelnick are also good sidekicks in the film and Rebecca Hall does the best she can in a fairly uninteresting and thankless role as a woman Frost meets on a plane and sort of hangs around for the rest of the movie.  Kevin Bacon is fine in the sort of stern disciplined henchman type that he could probably play in his sleep at this point.  I did not like Toby Jones’ turn as a book publisher, though that opinion may be clouded by his distractingly bad makeup and bald cap.

In the end, Frost/Nixon is a very well acted movie that has its moments, but for the most part it is agonizingly middlebrow and lifeless.  It’s the same kind formulaic Hollywood movie Ron Howard has made his career on, but unlike those films it isn’t honest enough to commit to its own corniness, instead it pretends to be the type of serious historical analysis that it clearly isn’t.

** out of Four

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