REVIEW: Frost/Nixon [2008]

“I let them down”

Now if you want a film to show the problems of drinking and how it can ruin your life, Frost/Nixon could be it. I jest somewhat here because, of course, that is not what this story is about. However, if what is shown is to be believed, a drunken night of nerves and fear on behalf of Richard Nixon might have been his ultimate demise. After what had been a steamrolling of his interviewer, David Frost, basically reshaping his image and making he, recently disgraced and resigned, seem presidential, soon became the nail that finished his political career forever. One phone call turned the tide, one moment of weakness and hubris lit a fire under a playboy performer and created a journalist with a mission to uncover the truth and save his very life from absolute collapse. Nixon was correct in what he screams through the phone—only one of them can come out on top. All he had to do was stay quiet and let the chips fall, but a man that never had it easy, never had the looks or natural charisma for life in the public eye had to take one last shot, one last ditch attempt to instill the fear he felt into the man across the table. It’s a misstep that he doesn’t even remember, so whether it happened is up to the memory of Frost himself, but witnessing that unbelievable turn of momentum can only be explained by it. If this film did anything for me, it has given me the passion to seek out the actual interview to watch that close-up, that moment where television molds reality into exactly what it wants, with the ex-President himself.

This film, based upon Peter Morgan’s own stage play, is the bread and butter for a guy like Ron Howard. He is the kind of director that makes solid films, but never that masterpiece that may show off his unique style as an auteur. He is a hired hand—and I mean that in the best way—that excels at non-fiction tales, getting great performances from his cast, keeping the camera on them to drive the story without the need for flash. When he attempts an adaptation of fiction, like he did with The Da Vinci Code, his static style just makes the fantastical boring, and those moments of visual splendor become forced and out-of-place. Give him reality, though, something like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, and he can direct it with the best of them. Frost/Nixon, being a play that involves pretty much two central characters is just that type. It becomes a boxing match, (Kevin Bacon’s Jack Brennan’s metaphor is uncanny), between these two personalities, clashing and jabbing and trying to keep the other off-balance. Frost becomes Muhammad Ali, taking the punches, taking the abuse, until the last possible second where he counters with an uppercut of his own. That punch connects and the staggering giant finally relents to give the public what it had been begging for.

Now I don’t want to call the filmic style static, because that word has a negative connotation. In fact, that very structured, composed style is exactly what is needed here. While Howard never makes the movie feel staged, there is no theatrical feel or stilted movements, it is just a wonderful use of minimal angles and panning. The camera stays focused on the performers, allowing them to become the people they are portraying, enveloping us in the story, tricks and effects unnecessary. And with the bravado of a guy like Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon, that is all you need. This performance is superb, he transforms into the fallen leader absolutely—playing mindgames, constantly smiling his sly grin, working the crowd, and reinvigorating his image. That scene with the phone call, as spoken of before, is fantastic. A star-making monologue if there ever was one; I would have loved to have seen this play because Langella is a formidable creature on the screen, I can’t imagine the power he’d exude on stage.

But don’t count out the rest of the cast. Michael Sheen is a favorite of mine and he doesn’t let me down. His transformation, from ladies man talk show host to a driven, serious, journalist is on par with Langella’s from confident trickster to beaten and ragged man, if not as front and center. Sheen shows Frost’s ego, so huge and successful abroad, yet so fragile in the states, something he desperately wants to change, unfortunately thinking his charade with the President might not have been the best idea to do so. Without funding, without distribution, without faith from even his closest advisors and friends, Frost went out on a limb and he sacrificed everything for just one shot at giving Nixon the trial he’d never have.

And the supporting players, a who’s who of character greats, bolster these two giants and allow them to do their thing. Toby Jones is a complete surprise as Swifty Lazar. Between the baldhead, the tough accent, and the hard demeanor, I couldn’t believe this little man, who usually plays nerdy intellectuals, (Truman Capote anyone?), was taking charge. Rebecca Hall adds to her great performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sam Rockwell does nice work as the crack reporter with more than fame invested in his work, and Oliver Platt excels, especially with his own Nixon impersonation. I also enjoyed the complete transformation of Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt. This guy played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and here he is a bookish producer that no one would say is getting by on his good looks. These players are firing on all cylinders, mirroring the film itself as a whole. It’s a story made all the more intriguing knowing it’s true, and, as a film, very entertaining and a showcase for some of the best acting of the year.

Frost/Nixon 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
© 2008, Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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