February 04, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

One of the most complex and controversial figures in the history of the United States is without a doubt Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States (from 1969 to 1974) and the only president to ever resign the office. Facing impeachment due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Nixon decided to resign on August 9, 1974; however, he never faced indictment due to the full pardon granted to him by President Gerald Ford the following month, leaving the nation in a state of discomfort. However, by 1977 Nixon began to plan a comeback, and so he decided to accept an invitation for a series of sit-down interviews with British commentator David Frost. Since Frost's career was also in trouble and he was looking for a comeback too, Nixon's team thought the interviews would be an easy way to restore the politician's image. But the interviews would prove to be a greater challenge than expected, as they became essentially, the trial Nixon never had. Ron Howard's film "Frost/Nixon" deals with the events surrounding the interviews.

Based on Peter Morgan's play of the same name, "Frost/Nixon" opens in 1974 with Richard Nixon's (Frank Langella) resignation speech in what would be his last day at the office. Meanwhile in Australia, David Frost (Michael Sheen) finishes an episode of his talk show "Frost Over Australia" and watches the last moments of Nixon in the White House. Thinking about the amount of people who watched President Nixon's resignation on live TV, Frost decides to attempt to secure a TV interview with him. To achieve this purpose, Frost recruits his producer and friend John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) to help him produce the series, although Frost finds troubles to secure financing for the program. With serious financial issues, Frost manages to finance the interviews, and prepares himself with the aid of investigators Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Frost's team will face difficult conflicts, as Reston doubts about Frost's intentions and wants to have Nixon admitting his guilt. But Frost's fiercest adversary will be the ex-President himself.

Adapted to the screen by writer Peter Morgan himself, "Frost/Nixon" takes the Nixon interviews as a showdown, a duel between two opponents determined to beat the other in order to survive. As if if was the case of a boxing match, we witness the preparation the two adversaries endure, as well as their doubts, their fears, their strategies, in a dramatization of the events that preceded the Nixon interviews. This view of the interviews as a duel makes the story very interesting, because since the outcome of the interviews is not exactly a secret, the interest is instead placed on the actual confrontation. In a way, what matters is not the result of the interview, but how both interviewer and interviewee fight for the control of the talk. Naturally, while the movie has David Frost as "main character" (as the problems he faced to make the interviews are a major subplot), it is Nixon whom becomes the most interesting one, and while not exactly a historically accurate story, there is still a great deal of exploration of this complex historical figure.

Tension is a key factor in the course of the interviews, and director Ron Howard manages to handle it consistently well through the film, keeping things subtle and restrained and avoiding the overtly melodramatic kind of scenes his movies tend to have. Howard keeps things flowing at a smooth pace, although the inclusion of dramatized interviews with the supporting characters (where the offer their point of view on the story) tends to break the nice pace the film has. Probably a result of its origins as a stage play, "Frost/Nixon" has a view on human drama that's more intimate and more personal, but that given the personality and cold blood of its main characters is also less prone to digress on superficial emotionality (although the inclusion of Rebecca Hall's character almost takes that route). At first sight, it may not be the kind of work one would expect from Ron Howard, but he makes a terrific job in bringing the intellectual duel between Frost and Nixon to life without mellowing things or taking the easy way out.

And considering that the film deals about the showdown between two characters, the quality of the performances by the actors in those roles becomes instrumental for the film's success. Fortunately, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (whom also starred in the stage play version) deliver the goods and make of "Frost/Nixon" one terrific showcase of their talents. As David Frost, Michael Sheen is charming and effective, taking the role of the nice talk-show host who must rise to the challenge of interviewing Richard Nixon. Overall Sheen delivers a very good performance, but at times he is definitely overshadowed by his costar, Frank Langella, whom makes a powerful portrait of Nixon in which his voice and mannerisms speak louder than any work make-up. And that last thing is something that I personally liked a lot about Sheen and Langella in "Frost/Nixon" (and the movie in general): they do not attempt to be historically accurate, or a perfect impersonation of their characters, but to reflect the importance of the interview for both parties and what they represented.

The rest of the cast is overall effective as well, although naturally the film is entirely focused on Frost and Nixon. Still, Sam Rockwell's turn as journalist James Reston R. is worth of praise, although the same can't be said of Rebeca Hall, whose performance is kind of poor. To be fair, her character is pretty much pointless in the film and seems like an attempt to add a definitely out of place element of romantic interest. This is one of the script's greatest faults, as the movie had no need for such an intermission, and it even feels like a cheap attempt to make the film more accessible to the mainstream audiences (as if the makers weren't sure whether the film is appealing or not). Also, I must say that I found Ron Howard's use of "dramatized interviews" a tiring resource, specially because even when it's interesting to have the point of view of those around Frost and Nixon, the way they are spliced into the film is not only distracting, but damaging to the film's vertiginous pace, and the high tension raised by the conflict's details.

Personally, I'm not really a fan of Ron Howard's boy of work, as in my personal opinion, his movies, while well made and of good quality, tend to follow classic formulas without really attempting anything bold or refreshing. In "Frost/Nixon" Howard attempts something unusual of him: a subtle low-key film, more intellectual than visceral where the conflict is of greater importance than the resolution. And to my surprise, he succeeds in doing it. Showcasing a terrific job by Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon" allows to have a humanized idea of a man whose larger-than-life persona has become a character that embodies all that is wrong about politics. While not exactly a perfect film, by following faithfully Morgan's play, director Ron Howard succeeds in making a serious film about ex-President Richard Nixon and what's probably his best job to date.


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