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2009-01-28 15:32
Frost Nixon

What it’s about:

Frost/Nixon recounts the events surrounding a momentous series of TV interviews between disgraced former US President Richard Nixon and British talk show host David Frost.

What we thought:

The odds are stacked against Frost/Nixon being a watchable movie. Consider the following: it’s adapted from a stage play. It deals with events that are well-known in world history, making a surprise ending impossible. It’s a movie about a TV interview – is it possible to think of something more boring? All of which adds up to what should be a viewing experience less enjoyable than doing your taxes. Instead, the film is not only watchable – it’s really damn good.

The film is set in 1977, three years after U.S. President Richard Nixon famously resigned in the face of impeachment due to the Watergate scandal. David Frost is a playboy television personality best known for his lightweight shows. Both men are struggling with a public image problem: Nixon feels unjustly vilified, while Frost isn’t regarded as a serious journalist. When they set up a series of interviews, each sees it as a chance to redeem himself in the public eye. And so the scene is set for a duel: Frost intends to give Nixon the prosecution that was denied by Gerald Ford’s pardon, while Nixon embraces the opportunity to demonstrate his rectitude. And both see the chance to make a tidy sum of money.

Frost, as played by Michael Sheen, can be irritating with his cheesy perma-grin and slick demeanour. I’m not sure whether the real David Frost is so annoying, but every now and then one can’t help but feel that he would benefit from a vigorous slapping. To Sheen’s credit, he allows Frost’s desperation at staring down the barrel of a flagging career to show through. It makes for an ambiguous character sketch, but ultimately one in which the viewer is sympathetic towards him. More remarkable, however, is the sympathy we feel for Nixon. Frank Langella is utterly deserving of his Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the disgraced president.

Aside from nailing his mannerisms spot-on, there are moments when you suddenly become aware of the astounding layers to his acting – playing the part of a man being disingenuous to keep his fearsome intellect concealed until needed. It’s a job that is superbly executed – I, for one, didn’t think that it was possible to empathise with one of the most reviled political villains of the 20th century. Deftly, though, he stops just short of allowing us to actually side with the old crook. Langella is helped immensely, of course, by working with a gripping script.

Writer Peter Morgan can’t seem to put a foot wrong these days, particularly when it comes to writing about heads of state – The Queen and The Last King of Scotland were two of his knockout scripts. The fact that he adapted Frost/Nixon from his own stage play left me pleasantly surprised; too often a play translates terribly into film, with stilted dialogue and claustrophobic locations. Credit must surely go to Ron Howard for allowing the quietness and intimacy that can only come with a camera.

Ron Howard has gone up considerably in my books. He’s not a director known for his subtlety – this is the director, after all, who brought us How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Even his more serious fare suffers from suffocating heavy-handedness – Cinderella Man, for example, was shameless Oscar bait. To our benefit, however, his direction here exercises that most elegant of virtues: restraint. It’s probably a good thing that he has the historical record to guide him towards realism – I get the feeling Howard would be more at home amongst the explosive histrionics of A Few Good Men. Instead, we are treated to the cut-and-thrust of a two smart men debating with decorum. It’s surprisingly thrilling stuff.

I’m going to go out on a limb and tout Frank Langella as a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar. Whether Frost/Nixon scoops any of its four other nominations remains to be seen, but it’s good to see a smart film get the nods it deserves.

A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon.

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