Sunday, February 1, 2009

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon


By coincidence, Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” which the director opened up cinematically from Peter Morgan’s stage play, was released at about the same time as “Doubt”, John Patrick Shanley's award winning stage play. This marks the year of the Broadway play turned into screen gold. In a way, though this film has more in common with "The Wrestler" than "Doubt". Besides the obvious battle faced between Randy Ram and his opponent at the end of his film, and the epic showdown between Frost and Nixon here, it is also about a man who was once at the height of fame and popularity, a respected man, who is now beaten down and forgotten. And whereas Mickey Rourke is the showcase of his film, this film literally belongs to Frank Langella as the rejected President Nixon.

A movie based on a 4-night interview segment is not what you might have expected: a talking-heads yak-a-thon between characters recognized by much of the world. Instead this film plays out as a documentary about the making of the incendiary interviews. Most of the drama is evoked by backstage preparations, the sorts of brainstorming sessions we all know that the candidates for President and Vice-President went through in the 2008 debates. This time, while Nixon is afforded heavy preparation from his chief adviser, Jack Brennan (played Kevin Bacon), Frost himself is virtually bullied by his own. The latter includes journalists James Reston (a very passionate Sam Rockwell) who is a bona-fide Nixon hater, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) who provides the humor, and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) Frost's manager. All of these men are joined with Rebecca Hall playing Frost's girlfriend, and there you have a solid as a rock cast with no missteps.

David Frost, a British talk-show host who somehow lands the interview of a lifetime, is played by actor Michael Sheen with the same broad smile that helped defined his charm as Tony Blair in Stephen Frears’s Oscar-winning movie “The Queen,” One would expect a playboy lightweight to be outclassed in the series of interviews with ex-Prexy Nixon, not someone who put up $200,000 of his own money to pay the man when the major networks turned down his pitch. Sheen plays Frost as he was, a fame monger. He had no real reason behind his plight to grab the interview, other than to get the highest number of viewers. And it is sometimes infuriating to see his lack of passion for the project, however as time goes by he does plan for the ultimate showdown; aka the Watergate segment. Sheen is beyond fantastic in every scene.

As Nixon, Frank Langella truly is a work of art. In a performance that is in no way a mimicry, Langella breathes new life into a character from the United States past, and somehow almost allows its audience to feel sympathy for the bastard. Sure, he has the voice down, and he looks a lot like Nixon especially at certain angles, but he nails the inner-man, which is always the aim. And as the film continues, and the interviews continue on, we see Nixon crumble again. In a far more dramatic way than Sarah Palin’s disastrous interviews with Katie Couric in which the former could not name a single magazine that she read, Nixon is K.O.’d by his own self-loathing, a hatred that has seen him refusing to burn tapes incriminating him in knowing about and trying in a criminal way to cover-up the Watergate Hotel break-in. Frank Langella's portrayl is a terrific piece of work.

The performances are spot on, and the docu-drama style hit the nail on the head. Overall there is nothing new with the plot of Frost/Nixon - watch the real interviews or read a history book if you want to know what happens, but its not about that. Its about what happened behind the scenes, and for me it is about the performances. And I think that the cast of Frost/Nixon are beyond mimics, and actually inherit their roles. Bravo!

**** out of *****

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