Monday, December 29, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (2008) 9/10
Talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) sets out to interview disgraced former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Frost is an entertainer, not a journalist, and appears to be outmatched, and to lack credibility. But Nixon's desire to be heard becomes his undoing. Directed by Ron Howard.

Ron Howard was the right director for this project. There is a level at which Howard is disdained for being plebian, but a plebian is exactly what this movie needed; someone who could convey this material to an audience that is younger and doesn't know the history, or is not younger but wasn't paying all that much attention. Or knew what was going on, but didn't get the nuance.

After all, the notion of journalistic credibility is a little more nuanced than simply turning on your TV to watch Nixon resign, or being angry that he was pardoned. Here we have two journalistic wonks (played ably by the ever-delightful Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) worried about their careers if they get involved with a dilettante project instead of something serious. I have to wonder how many people who were adults in 1977 (as I was not) were really on top of that aspect of the event.

And the Watergate story is, after all, intensely convoluted. Crimes and dirty tricks. Conspiracy to cover-up those crimes. Secret tapes. Hearings. A massive tangle of corruption and wrong-doing and an extensive investigation into who all the players were and what they did and who they took their orders from. Most people are kind of confused about the whole thing.


So you want a director who can present complex information in a straightforward manner, without actually dumbing it down. I don't see how Howard could have done a better job. Now, I haven't seen the play, so I don't know how much credit playwright Peter Morgan (who also did the screenplay) deserves, but the whole thing is commendable. It's exciting, it's smart, it engages the audience. There's a seamless blend of documentary, pseudo-documentary, and drama.

And there's that dreadful phrase about movies-from-plays, "opening up." You don't want the movie to look stagebound, but I have to say, I hate the artifice of forcing a play to look not stagebound. How often I've watched a movie and thought, Oh, here's the "opening up" part. Yuck. That doesn't happen here. The movement is so constant and normal that you have to stop and think to remember it's a play. Perfectly done.

What everyone is talking about with Frost/Nixon is the performances. Sheen and Langella are great, of course. I mean, this whole movie is so watchable, so compelling, and it's really just guys talking (there is only one important woman; the movie fails the Bechdel test).

I find Langella's Nixon kind of problematic. Mostly, because you're watching for the imitation; there's just no way around that. Here's someone not only famous, but famously imitated; they even throw that in—Oliver Platt does a quick and funny Nixon imitation, reminding us that everyone imitated Nixon, and reminding us that Langella is here to do something much more. At which, no doubt about it, he succeeds. His Nixon is complex, thoughtful, angry, sad, menacing, powerful, and smart. But what he isn't, is charming.

After the first couple of days of interviews, we're told one cameraman turns to another and says (paraphrasing), 'I didn't vote for him when I had the chance, but I would now if I could.' Frost's first days of interviewing Nixon were disasterous precisely because they made Nixon look so incredibly good. The world was charmed, and no one wanted the world to be charmed. But Langella doesn't convey that.

I looked up some YouTube of Frost interviewing Nixon. Nixon was, in fact, astonishingly appealing. He had a sweet smile, he seemed clever and interesting. This is what Frost had to combat, and this is where Langella fails. He just doesn't give us that side of the man, and without it, the audience isn't one hundred percent sure what the problem is.

Despite this problem, I think it's a must-see. They tell us that history is an adventure, but we rarely know it for ourselves. And those of us who were alive at the time may find it weird that it's now "history," but it is, and vitally important, and in Frost/Nixon, entertaining to watch.