Saturday, January 31, 2009

Frost / Nixon Reach Oscars After Going All Twelve Rounds

The title of the movie is Frost / Nixon with a slash...but it should be Frost v. Nixon - as in an HBO boxing special. For the boxing metaphor is the central organizing principle that Peter Morgan has set up in his play about TV Host David Frost's first public interview after Nixon's impeachment.

In this corner: David Frost, handsome, breezy international playboy, social butterfly, and lightweight TV-comedian turned Australian talk-show host, looking for a way back into the U.S. prime-time television limelight, and played with earnest enthusiasm by Michael Sheen.

In the other corner: Richard M. Nixon, aging right-wing paragon who's fallen from grace, former President, intellectual powerhouse, perversely anti-social paranoid and world's most notorious criminal. Played with intense nuance by Frank Langella.

Just as in the best boxing movies, both are consummate athletes in their field - in this case, the field of politics and media. And the match is set up as they typically are: the gutsy challenger (Frost) going for 12 grueling rounds against the past-his-prime champion (Nixon). Just as in the best boxing films, each man's weakness is the other's strength, and each can only triumph by learning how to overcome his weakness through his opponent's example. The question for Frost: can he learn the intellectual discipline necessary to corner Nixon on his own turf, and force an admission of culpability? For Nixon: can he ride Frost's good humor to muster the social grace necessary to revive his image in the eyes of the media and hence, America?

Both men have their coaching teams. (For Nixon, a former marine, Jack Brennan, played in caricature by Kevin Bacon. For Frost, his producer, John Birt, and the hired guns of Bob Zelnik - the news professional - and James Reston Jr - played by Sam Rockwell as kind of the "soul" of liberal America that NEEDS Nixon to be properly confronted).

Will Nixon be able to rehabilitate his reputation with this four-part interview (covering the four faces of Nixon: Viet Nam, foreign policy, Watergate, and "Nixon the man") and re-enter politics? Or will Frost deliver the knock-out blow that will reveal Nixon's guilty conscience to the world, thus providing the catharsis of culpability that the liberal public longs for (and the media riches and acclaim that Frost desperately needs)?

Needless to say, the story and the issues it raises - in terms of the criminal abuses of the Presidency, the need for political catharsis, and the power of the media to not only conceal and reveal, but also bestow both fame and notoriety - echo strongly with our current times. And as a film that explores the intersection of politics, history, and media through this conceit of the intellectual boxing match between these two men, the story succeeds masterfully at creating the kind of political fable that makes for excellent post-movie dinner conversation.

So let's talk about how the people behind Frost / Nixon have put together this confection. I agree completely with other reviewers who have compared this film's direction favorably to Doubt: by handing Frost / Nixon over to Ron Howard to direct (rather than attempting it himself, as John Shanley did with Doubt), Peter Morgan allows his story to escape Doubt's wordy claustrophobia. Visual symbols (such as a pair of Italian shoes, or the expression on Nixon's face) come to play as key a role in this film as the interview itself, and we're taken across the oceans and through Washington and LA as the film unfolds its story on the world stage. According to Entertainment Weekly's interview on the film, Howard "opened up" the feel of the movie by allowing his actors to free themselves of the gestures and habits they learned onstage. That freedom helps create performances that translate keenly on film, letting the actors interact broadly with the sets and making us feel the hothouse poppy Hollywood environment that Nixon has retreated to. Even so, the climactic scenes boil down to two men, facing each other in comfy chairs in a small, middle-class living room. But consider this the boxing ring, and you see how that set is just the arena for battle, supported by the wide-ranging backgrounds we see outside the ring.

Frank Langella as well deserves the praise (and the Oscar nomination) he's received, for the complexities of the Nixon he creates are the key to the film's message: this Nixon is a flawed but fascinating villain in the best Shakespearean tradition. When Nixon introduces his Hollywood agent, Swifty Lazar, to the reporters doing his bio (including Diane Sawyer), he does so as a personal joke about Lazar's fear of shaking hands. It doesn't matter so much that no one else in the room cares about Lazar's predilections: Nixon himself is perfectly amused. The scene reveals both Nixon's creepy fascination with people's personal idiosyncrasies and his social insensitivity (he has a file on everyone, a Watergate habit he can't seem to shake), as well as his keen insight into human nature (he's able to sum up Frost the instant he sets eyes on him). Never mind that Langella neither looks nor sounds much like Nixon; this is definitely the best portrayal of the man to date, capturing perfectly the quality of ambition, perversity, and intellect that made Nixon so considerable a figure to begin with. As some have said, it is a performance that perhaps captures the meaning of "Nixon" better than the man himself.

Sheen, for his part, does a serviceable job carrying the film as the entertaining David Frost, who gambles big and must face total ruin before summoning the nerve to truly act like a reporter. Not much else perhaps needs to be said of this side of the ring, since Frost's underdog story is perhaps the most expected one in the film, and Frost, though the protagonist, is not the ultimate subject of this biopic.

And so we come to the quibbles I have with this movie, which though I am giving five stars, is far from perfect. First, there's the treatment of Nixon. While I may not share Sam Rockwell's complete thirst for blood, I do find that the extent to which the movie makes us actually like Nixon makes me a bit uncomfortable. While I'm sure that the man could be charming, and understanding tricky Dick's nature is part of the dual edge of the sword here, I fear the film suffers a bit from its own greatest fear: that it will rehabilitate Nixon's reputation more than he deserves. Yes, I know this is a film that is not JUST about Nixon. Still, Frost's failure in completely nailing Nixon's culpability (and I'm not completely convinced he DOES nail it) needn't be the filmmakers.

And then there's that sports metaphor, which gets driven into your skull repeatedly. As an organizing principle of the story, I think it works. But even something that works can be overused. I think we tend into that territory, here.

And then, finally, there's simply the fact that however much we want this movie to be about something more - to be about our present day issues, or the nature of political corruption, or media ambition, mortality, and the rest of it - that it ultimately is about what it is. Which is to say, it's a smallish film, with limited ambitions - that is, if you consider the exploration of social graces and class resentment limited, which I kind of do - even though it largely achieves them.

But there is one scene in the movie that makes the film stand out. Just before the final interview, when everything is on the line, Nixon unexpectedly and ill-advisedly telephones Frost in the middle of the night. In that conversation, Nixon reveals both the commonality and the differences between the two men, in a speech that soars with insight and mastery of the film's themes. Without that scene - and the subsequent references to it - the film would have laid flat, a mere character study cum morality play, like Doubt. But that late-night encounter between the two men dives right into the heart of what this story is about, and ties it up neatly. It helps too that it's the middle of the night, the same time as the Watergate henchmen would have been breaking into the Democratic headquarters, the time when social mores and commonsense strategies can be thrown out the window, and truths can be gotten down to. The fact that Nixon can't remember it happening may lead us to wonder whether Nixon's ultimate flaw was his conscious ambition, or his unconscious demons - and whether the ruin of a country can really all be the fault of a single man.

So I have to say that despite its flaws, a movie that makes us consider that question - and consider it in such an entertaining and convincing way as this one does - in this day and age, is deserving of all the stars I have.

1 comment:

  1. I largely agree with your review, but I found the late-night phone call too convenient a device for tying up all the loose ends -- particularly since it turns out the phone call didn't actually happen, historically.

    As a dramatic device it ends up making the film feel a little too pat, Langella's stellar performance notwithstanding. Michael Sheen's Frost, however, never seemed to complete the journey from superficial dandy to incisive interviewer. He seemed to get that he needed to smarten up but the performance never sold me on his successfully doing so.