Frost/Nixon (2008) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for some language
Running time: 122 min.

Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Michael Macfadyen, Toby Jones
Cameo: Clint Howard
Ron Howard
Screenplay: Peter Morgan (based on his play)
Review published January 25, 2009

Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man) directs this film version of screenwriter Peter Morgan's Tony award-winning London (later NYC) stage play of the same, based on the true-life interviews between lightweight talk show host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Nixon, noted for his first public admission of culpability in the Watergate scandal.  The film retains the actors who previously appeared in the stage play, Michael Sheen (Blood Diamond, Laws of Attraction) and Frank Langella (Superman Returns, Good Night and Good Luck), as Frost and Nixon, respectively.  It's a solid drama, especially of interest to political junkies piqued in discerning the motivation, at least in theory, of one of the more enigmatic minds in American history.  It's also fascinating for a look into the world of infotainment television, and its behind-the-scene antics that dictate the bringing forth of controversy for potential ratings and importance, showcasing the way that television and media can alter perceptions of power and standing through images and sound bites.

Set mainly in 1977, Langella plays disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon, who is courted by various media agencies for an in-depth interview, finally giving it to the highest bidder.  In this case, the bidder is British talk show personality David Frost, known more for his showmanship style and fluff pieces, which works perfectly in Nixon's favor, or so he thinks, as he expects softball questions which he can use to his advantage to make himself look presidential.  Frost is not respected enough as a journalist to secure enough support to pay the hefty fee for Nixon's interview, and then there is a problem with securing distribution rights.  Given Frost's reputation as an entertainment interviewer, news organizations refuse to indulge for long in their interest in what information they might get from the lengthy one-on-one.  What results is a situation where a talk show host must deliver a knockout blow to a world class debater and notorious manipulator, with only his reputation and the financial future of many riding on getting something out of Nixon no hardnosed journalist had been able to get in years of covering the Watergate scandal -- admission of guilt in abusing the power of office.

It's probably not a stretch to state that Frost/Nixon is powered mostly by its performances, with Sheen and Langella as standouts in their respective roles as Frost and Nixon.  Both actors have a knack for being able to convey complexity just from silent reaction shots.  Though neither character is explored much in terms of upbringing, there is a sense of familiarity one derives regarding the personalities that goes beyond just what is said about them in the screenplay.  Langella's Nixon always looks like he's carrying a burden, though too prideful to allow anyone else to shoulder it, and too arrogant to admit he even has one.  Sheen's Frost looks always eager to be the master showman, yet always looks for the least confrontational and most sensational ways of achieving his goals.  One senses that his eventual attempts to draw out Nixon come more from his desire to make for good TV (why else pay the man $600,000 for a few chat sessions?) rather than a personal curiosity or sense or journalistic obligation.

Although originally a stage play, Morgan, who is on a roll in the docudrama department after The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, opens up the situations well for a cinematic presentation, merging imagined conversations with actual transcripts in ways that make sense contextually, and which director Ron Howard capitalizes on with his gift for straightforward dramatic dialogue.  Even with the solid work behind the camera, the times when the film truly comes to life occur when Langella and Sheen are together on the screen, especially in their battle of wits in their recreation of real-life argumentation.  It is in these talking-head moments, carried over four interviews, each with a different agenda on the part of Sheen to draw out the enigmatic politician, throwing in some surprises to catch him off guard, when subtlety is employed in intricate detail, as viewers scan for the turning points that lead to the highly-publicized candor on the part of Nixon.  Both of them have everything to lose if the results aren't in their favor.   Supporting roles are filled with solid character actors Sam Rockwell (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), Kevin Bacon (Death Sentence) and Oliver Platt (Casanova).  Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) provides eye candy in a fairly superfluous and undemanding role.

Frost/Nixon won't be regarded as a movie to see for its historical revelations, which are a matter of public record and are given freely away in the trailer, but for being an engaging drama with moments of genuine intrigue and psychological interplay into public figures that are too large in life to grasp without dissection.  As with the Oliver Stone portrayal of the 37th President, Nixon, one gets the sense that Nixon's motivations seem to always come from a sense of insecurity and paranoia that no one liked him and always looked down upon him, causing him to try to prove them all wrong.  It's spurred him on to become the most powerful man in the world, and yet, he still didn't feel like he would ever silence his critics, and calamity resulted. 

Frost/Nixon paints the former president in a light that's neither flattering nor condemning.  It sees the man as a human being, skillful but not altogether fit enough in his character to assume such a responsibility without being checked.  Nixon's most famous of outbursts during the interview comes when he exclams that when a president does anything, that this means it isn't against the law.  The intoxicating nature of power can often lead to abuses, and the lack of understanding on his part that the role of the president is to set examples of how authority should behave has led to widespread damage, not only to our view of President Nixon as a leader, or as a man, but it has forever cemented a cynical view of the White House and its pulpit, seen as being used mostly to manipulate the populace into feelings of complacency, while leaders do whatever they can to further their own interests and the agendas of their cronies. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo