Thursday, January 8, 2009

Review of Frost/Nixon

This review previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission.

Seriously, folks, here is one of the best movies of 2008. Go see it, please.

Frost/Nixon is a political movie in the way that Citizen Kane is a newspaper movie or the Indiana Jones movies are an ode to archaeology. I mean that as a complement in the best way possible. Ron Howard's dazzling adaptation of Peter Morgan's acclaimed play isn't a poorly disguised op-ed piece that will be ancient by the time Obama's first term ends. Politics is (mercifully) just a backdrop for one of 2008's best movies and a certain Oscar nominee for Best Picture.

David Frost is now a venerable figure in journalism thanks to his historic 1977 grilling of Richard Nixon, but in 1974, when the movie opens, he is essentially a superior version of Ed McMahon. He hosts talk shows in London and Australia where he interviews the likes of the Bee Gees, enjoys a playboy reputation, and is famous for, well, it's hard to say. As one taunting writer put it at the time, he and Vidal Sassoon defined the 1970s.

The one thing that Frost (Michael Sheen) understands is television, so when he sees Nixon's departure from the White House, the first thing he notices is the timing. It's 6 a.m. on the West coast. Why say goodbye when half the country is asleep? He also realizes that Nixon would be a dream interview subject, the kind of "get" that would make him a player in America, where TV rules. He goes about trying to secure Nixon and a corresponding deal with any of the American networks.

As for Nixon (Frank Langella), his post-presidential life in California is appropriately palatial and secure, but there are no challenges, no problems to solve. By 1977, his public life consists of speaking on the banquet circuit where, to his chagrin, he's paraded around like "a circus animal" in "reducing the Presidency to banal anecdotes." And, of course, Watergate hangs over his head, taunting him. So, when Frost expresses interest in an interview, it's an enticing offer. First, there's a big pay day ($600,000). Second, Nixon will get the chance to offer his side of the story, which will be even easier since Frost, according to Nixon adviser Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), is not in the President's "intellectual class."

Nixon can control the interview, but he half-jokes that he should "bug Frost's hotel," which shows you how competitive the disgraced politician is. When Frost visits Nixon's estate to discuss the four 90-minute interviews and to hand over a whopping advance payment, Nixon can't help but bait Frost. "It's a duel," Nixon says. "No holds barred." The old man wants action and Frost has no choice but to respond.

If there's a lot of back story until the actual interview, it's with good reason. The movie is about two big personalities colliding, so it's absolutely necessary to paint a rich portrait of these two strong-willed men. Screenwriter Morgan does an outstanding job with that, using Frost and Nixon's emotional highs and lows to move the plot along, whether it's Nixon exploding at Jack after a Houston orthodontists' dinner or Frost, after an awful interview with Nixon, inviting his research team (which includes the dependable Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell in fine supporting roles) to a party. After hearing his invitation greeted with objections and ridicule, Frost meekly explains to his coworkers that it's his birthday and he wanted to spend a crappy day with friends.

Howard, with his pedigree in blockbusters, might seem an odd choice to direct a stage adaptation, but he's actually the best choice. He's made movies about parenthood and physics geniuses into entertaining and thoughtful films, and he does the same with Frost/Nixon. There's not an ounce of fat in this movie, and under his capable guidance it becomes an uncompromising character study that moves like a freight train. How many other directors could try that without insulting half the audience while boring the other half to tears? Ron Howard can direct, it's just that simple.

Of course, Sheen and Langella are magnificent, with special credit going to the latter. Portraying Nixon has got to be a thankless task in some regards, as he's become an easy impression for any drunken, half-wit party guest. The public knows him as a caricature. But Langella's performance is so nuanced and bottled up, and Morgan's dialogue is so insightful, that he gives us a sobering look into the soul of a man who attained power, but never had the self-esteem to match. Frost has the confidence, but as the interviews and surrounding problems drain it (not to mention his reputation and finances) you can almost see and hear Sheen wither.

This movie doesn’t follow suit. It just keeps getting better and better, including when Frost finally sits across from Nixon and starts the interviews that affected both men's lives. What happens? Well, you can read the articles and books, but you'd be better served watching Frost/Nixon, an amazing movie that manages to make a seemingly static event insightful and entertaining.

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