Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review - Frost/Nixon

My latest review for the National Board of Review. I have a couple more this month:

“Let me tell you how bad things were today,” a horrified James Reston (Sam Rockwell) tells David Frost (Michael Sheen), after the first disastrous day of the Frost/Nixon interviews. “After the taping finished, I overheard two crew members say…they never voted for him when they had the chance. But if he ran for office today, he’d get their support.”

It is a laugh line, but it also has a certain resonance. For Frost/Nixon is a reminder that beyond the legacy of Watergate, Nixon was a man considered brilliant by his peers, with a particular skill in foreign affairs, Vietnam notwithstanding. His brand of Republicanism was from a time when intellectualism was valued in the party. At the time of Nixon’s first post-presidential interview, it was Frost, not Nixon, who was supposed to be the intellectual lightweight.

Of course, Frost is not simply the frivolous playboy he originally appears to be. Nixon (Frank Langella) is looking for a worthy adversary, and he finds it in Frost. And the blow by blow of their on-air bout forms the core of this film’s story.

Ron Howard his directed the film in his usual workmanlike way: Nothing flashy, but with an understanding of the issues underlying the story. He and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, have added documentary style interviews as a stand-in for the narration in the play. The technique is reminiscent of Reds, and though it may not be as powerful here, for the most part it works. The script is smart and perhaps even better suited for screen than for the stage.

But it is the two lead actors, imported from the Broadway production, who give the film its true emotional resonance. They have finely honed their performances and deepen them even further for the movie. Langella uses no more make up to disguise himself than he did on the stage, it appears. And the first glimpse of him is disconcerting—we know Nixon’s face too well to be fooled. But by the time we arrive at the interview, it has become difficult to remember that Nixon didn’t look exactly like Langella. In his face, his gait, his shoulders, and his eyes, Langella has created a facsimile that feels, emotionally, absolutely authentic.

Sheen is able to portray Frost’s significant charisma with ease. It is reminiscent of the ease with which he portrayed Tony Blair’s charisma in The Queen (written by Morgan, as well). Charisma is essential for Frost, because his outward layer of charm covers the madness behind the scenes, allowing him to somehow succeed when by all rights it seems he should fail.

What’s remarkable about the movie is that it finds great sympathy in two iconic figures who seem, at first, to be entirely unsympathetic. Frost is the easier of the two, of course—we want him to win, and we route for him to find a way to finance his interview himself when it becomes clear no network will support it. But ultimately the heart of the story lies with Nixon, whom the movie finds deeply flawed, but just as deeply human.

No comments: