Sunday, January 4, 2009
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen
Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt
Matthew McFadyen, Rebecca Hall
The private lives of public figures have always been a fetish for the masses. The private lives of fallen public figures are practically bliss.
In 1977 when Richard Nixon sat down for his first interview after his resignation, as President of the United States, with, British talk show host, David Frost those who cared saw in it the chance to go behind the scenes of the most controversial President in American history as well as an opportunity to end the speculation and set the record straight, giving Nixon an informal trial.
In an appropriately postmodernist approach, screenwriter Peter Morgan wonders what went on behind the scenes of the interviews and as directed by Ron Howard the result is a vastly entertaining film that fails to become relevant despite its best intentions.
When the film begins, Frost (Sheen) is doing a variety show in Australia and upon watching how popular the last Nixon (Langella) speech was, decides that interviewing the former President will save his career from exile and get him respect as a journalist.
After paying Nixon six hundred thousand dollars and coming up with a team that includes a top television producer (McFadyen) and investigators Bob Zelnick (Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Rockwell), the interview consisting of twelve two hour long sessions takes place.
Nothing in the film is as exciting as watching Langella and Sheen face each other. Both actors deliver breathtaking work as they become the people they're playing (that one mostly knows the actual beings through television gives the film an interesting meta connotation).
Langella is commanding and gives Nixon a dignity he preserves even during moments when he has to deliver cheap, self-analytical lines.
While looking nothing like the President his performance is full of vitality and even charm, Langella makes us believe in his Nixon.
Sheen on the other side proves again what a master of subtlety he can be as he lets the veteran actor take the movie from his hands and fully supports the main performance. He makes out of Frost an ambitious, persevering man with such charisma that you always know he's holding the aces.
Altogether the ensemble does terrific job, Bacon, as Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan, gives a moving portrayal of loyalty until the end, while Rockwell's manic energy actually helps make his Reston Jr. come off looking more serious than a conspiracy theorist.
Howard's direction has rarely been this efficient as he creates real tension in events with widely known outcomes. His detailed reconstruction of the interviews and the era is remarkable; he reccurs to aesthetic techniques of the 70's and fashions the film after a docudrama interviewing his own characters. All of this gives the movie a brisk, enjoyable pace that isn't able to get rid of the awkward, insecure discourse behind the people who made it.
Because deep into "Frost/Nixon" you realize that this film isn't exactly a biopic or a mere play adaptation but an actual attempt by Howard (and to some extent Morgan presumedly) to say something about our times.
And this becomes almost crystal clear during a moment when Frost accuses Nixon of invading Cambodia looking for Communists and coming up with nothing.
If you take Communists exchange them for weapons of mass destruction and Cambodia for Irak you have an obvious parallel with the Bush administration and more specifically its inhuman foreign policy.
Once Bush's administration is over hopefully the lesson that will be learned by the world is that history is nothing but a repetitive cycle, "all of this has happened before and it will happen again". And if there has ever been an administration as controversial as the current one it's Nixon's who with Vietnam, Watergate and his subsequent pardon by President Gerald Ford left an entire generation thirsty for justice.
In this way, the plot isn't only premonitory of what will ultimately happen to Bush who like Nixon "devalued the presidency" and "left the country who elected him in trauma" but also fails in justifying its existence.
The questions made by Frost are time appropriate, but the answers become underwhelming as they bring us back to the historical context of the film (there is no other way a reenactment could've gone obviously).
You have to add to this the fact that Howard's view tends to proselitism when from the very start we're made to see Frost and never Nixon as the underdog.
He manages to wash his hands a bit by making Frost a manipulator, "he knows television" says one of the characters and the film often suggests he had dubious qualifications for the job despite his eventual success.
One also has to remember that in a way Frost very well embodies the kind of journalism which we're stuck with nowadays, where attractive, charming people are the ones digesting the news for the audience and delivering them in easy to digest forms.
If the interviews were meant to take place today it's sad to think that someone like Frost would've probably been the only option.
But we never know if Frost is fighting for his credibility, getting back at his critics or if he's actually after the truth.
Not that it matters much because in a way Frost is like the movie itself with the filmmakers using it to make questions they don't know how else to address in the very same way that researchers in the film use the journalist to ventilate their own, more complex inquiries.
But what happens when the film, like Frost can only deliver what they are trained to do? Which is basically to entertain.
You throw them a Ron Howard-ism, which here comes in the shape of an unexpected call the President makes to Frost, where he all but gives away his weak points under the influence of alcohol.
Here the film which has delighted itself in throwing these two men into a cockfight reduces the final interview to an exorcism of class resentment.
Like a "Rocky"-esque match where it also suggests that Frost had the edge merely because he had good timing, "Frost/Nixon" is both its accusation and its absolution.