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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

* * *

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen

Frost/Nixon is a solid, if not particularly exceptional, film from director Ron Howard, who tends to specialize in inoffensive, middle-of-the-road fare. It's only real sin is that it doesn't seem to trust that the interplay between David Frost and Richard Nixon is by far the most interesting aspect of the story. The best moments are between those two characters as they face off and every time the film drifted away from that, I couldn't help thinking, "Get back to the interview!"

The film begins shortly after the resignation of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) from office, when British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen) declares his desire to interview him. There are problems bringing this idea to fruition, amongst them that Frost is seen more as an entertainer than a journalist, which makes getting financing for the project problematic. No one wants to shell out millions to watch Nixon swat away at softball questions. Frost's relative inexperience is in his favor, however, where the Nixon camp is concerned and the interview, should it ever come to light, is seen as an opportunity for Nixon to separate his achievements from the scandal that drove him from office and thereby preserve the good parts of his Presidency for historial posterity.

Frost and his team scramble to get the money and the four part interview begins when the financing isn't even half secured - not that they let on about that to Nixon's team. When the two men finally sit down, Nixon takes the early lead, monopolizing the time and turning it to his advantage. Frost seems to be little match for the politician until the crucial final interview, in which they discuss the Watergate scandal. The most interesting thing to me is the film's suggestion that Nixon handed victory to Frost. Before the last interview, the former President makes a late night phone call to Frost in which he explicitly states the similarities between them, making it clear that he sees Frost as a kindred spirit, a man who has spent his life pulling himself up the ranks only to be sneered at by those who have had their positions handed to them by birthright. What the film implies is that Nixon, knowing that no matter what he does, his legacy will always be tainted by Watergate, falls on his sword so that Frost can achieve legitimacy and respect within his own field.

The interview segments are the best part of the film, but to my mind there isn't enough time spent on them. A lot of time is spent on the Frost team's prep work and there are numerous cutaways to "talking head" interviews with members of both the Frost and Nixon sides which, frankly, don't really add anything to the story proper. The talking heads are basically designed to tell us how to react to what we've just seen and that's unnecessary because the content speaks for itself. Besides which, the cutaways tend to interrupt the flow of tension that builds during the actual story.

Langella and Sheen are at their best during the one-on-one portions where both are forced to switch between playing offense and defense. The characterization of Nixon by the film is largely sympathetic, mostly because Langella is able to go beyond the myth of Nixon and get to the human being. Sheen holds his own, though he's at a disadvantage because Frost is the less interesting of the two characters. The rest of the cast is made up of familiar faces, including Sam Rockwell and Oliver Plath as members of Frost's research team, Kevin Bacon as Nixon's Chief of Staff, and Rebecca Hall taking on the thankless task of playing "the girlfriend." The supporting cast doesn't get much chance to make an impact as their characters aren't very deeply developed - they're just spectators, like the rest of us.

While Frost/Nixon isn't a groundbreaking film, it is a competent and handsome looking picture. Watching Langella and Sheen, who after having played these characters both on stage and on film probably know them as well as they know themselves, is a treat and well worth the price of admission.


blake said...

:( I thought it was particularly exceptional. But you pointed out some excellent points. I'll have to watch it a second time.

Norma Desmond said...

I was maybe harder on it than I absolutely needed to be. It's by no means a bad film, I just think it might have been better if it had been directed by someone who can think outside the box.

blake said...

I agree about that. Ron Howard had to do absolutely nothing here. It was delivered to him via the script on a silver platter.