Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oscar Profile: Frost/Nixon

I finally got around to seeing Frost/Nixon this week.  It often comes down to the week before Oscar night for me to make time to review those more esoteric, self-important, picture nominees that seem to have been created solely to win Oscars and Frost/Nixon is a perfect example, but I'm pleased to say that it actually exceeded my expectations.  The movie is about as solid a mainstream entertainment as Hollywood is making nowadays and the two central performances breathe new life into this vintage story.  Political corruption is not the big news that it was back in 1977 when the original interviews took place, but Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan do a nice job of building tension around the potent game of one-upsmanship that prompted Richard Nixon to confess his guilt over Watergate on national television.  

The movie is certain to have an added fascination for viewers who lived through the event.  For today's generation the hook will be watching both men as they desperately try to keep their feelings in check, under intense media scrutiny.  The Frost/Nixon interview was a prime early example of the media's increasing influence over the collective consciousness.  Is the movie truly relevant today?  Although uniquely timed to coincide with the end of Bush's tenure as President, it is not a particularly memorable or groundbreaking film.  Just solid, and I will take solid over a lot of the other movies out there.  

The performances -- particularly Frank Langella's, are stellar but one doesn't feel the director expending his heart and soul on this material.  The docudrama approach with cutaways to talking heads of name actors playing real people grows increasingly tiresome and artificial as the movie rolls on.  It is almost as if the filmmakers began to insert these arbitrarily in order to maintain their motif, but they undermine the power of the unfolding story.  

Curiously, the film's biggest virtue: the cinematography by veteran commercial DP Sal Totino has been overlooked.  The film is cleverly shot with a camera that slowly drifts in and out of focus, mirroring the inner states of the two leads as their own focus wavers during the exhausting interview proceedings.  Production design and lighting is all suitably understated.  Technical aspects earn top marks.  Worth a look, but there were better films this year.  


  1. Coincidentally, I just saw Frost/Nixon this week as well and I'd go so far as to say if there was a better screenplay written in 2008, it certainly isn't on my radar. Between this film and The Queen (and to a lesser extent The Last King of Scotland), Peter Morgan has demonstrated an incredible aptitude for taking real life events that don't appear inherently cinematic and finding angles of entry into the material that are often astonishingly astute. In this case, he shrewdly identifies the duality between David Frost and Richard Nixon, both in terms of their chosen profession (politics and the media, whose codependency is well-chronicled) and their personalities (both of them ambitious men from humble beginnings, all too aware of their public persona) and depicts their series of interviews as a kind of cerebral chess match, played out via nuances of speech and subtle shifts in body language. Of course, none of this would matter if Frost/Nixon didn't also happen to be one of the year's most entertaining films, as Morgan does an exemplary job imagining the sort of prodigious drama that played out behind-the-scenes. Although there's some debate as to whether the film pins an inflated sense of importance on Nixon's eventual confession - which may not have been quite the moment of revelatory political watershed it's depicted as here - there's little doubt that the events on-screen prove more gripping than a story that hinges on two men sitting across from one another and chatting politics probably has any right to.

    Frank Langella certainly delivers an absorbing and fully-realized performance, although it's worth noting that he doesn't really look or sound anything like Nixon (Dan Hedaya's criminally underrated portrayal in Dick remains the benchmark, for my money). That being said, he elevates Tricky Dick to the realm of Shakespearean tragedy, which is no small feat. The ever-deft Michael Sheen, meanwhile, is quickly becoming one of the most underrated actors in the business and it's a shame his work here (as well as his superb turn as Tony Blair in The Queen) hasn't earned more kudos. The supporting cast - including Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfayden and Sam Rockwell - is excellent across the board. Not to take anything away from Slumdog Millionaire, but Frost/Nixon, for my money, was most deserving of Top Ensemble honors at the recent SAG awards.

    Ultimately, this was, in many ways, the perfect vehicle for Ron Howard's typically vanilla sensibilities... although it's never quite clear if he actually leaves his own stamp on the material or simply found himself entrusted with a terrific script / cast and stayed more or less out of the way (given that Langella and Sheen already honed their portrayals on stage, I might be inclined to lean towards the latter). Perhaps that's not entirely fair, as the film is extremely well-paced and reflects a certain shrewdness in terms of the way that it's framed / shot. Either way, I have absolutely no qualms in declaring this Howard's most accomplished picture to date (not that that's saying a whole lot, given that I'd probably have accorded that honor to Willow previously).

  2. I would agree that Frost/Nixon is probably Howard's most accomplished directorial achievement to date. His sensibility as a "typically vanilla" storyteller is put to good use here. But, I do not agree that Frost/Nixon compares favorably to Morgan's brilliant script for The Queen. Whereas that film expands upon a brief moment in time and opens it up to expose us to a myriad of variables, Frost/Nixon feels a little slight to me. For me, the ingenuity required to adapt and dramatize these famous interviews simply can't compare to the bracing honesty of Robert Siegel's screenplay for The Wrestler, or the poetry and imagination of Wall-E. It also doesn't lift the spirits the way that Slumdog Millionaire does. Powerful, yes. Taut and intriguing, yes but ultimately offering very few surprises. And, if you're looking for riveting cat and mouse interplay, my vote this year goes to a little known film called The Dark Knight.