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December 2, 2008

Frosty political tête-á-tête hits close to home

Featuring riveting performances by its leads and coming at exactly the right moment in America’s political history, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon is a sharp follow-up to his dreadful adaptation of The DaVinci Code. But its stagy construction may be hard for some viewers to stomach.

Originally written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and staged as a play in 2006, Frost/Nixon appeared on both the West End and Broadway, and starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively. The play chronicles the 1977 series of interviews between Frost, a British television celebrity more notorious for fluffy television news satire and womanizing than for his interview expertise, and the disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon. In the midst of this titanic battle of wits and egos, Frost is able to draw a confession and an apology—of sorts—from the ex-president regarding his role in the Watergate scandals.

With the splendid Sheen and Langella overseeing its transfer from stage to screen, Frost/Nixon is a timely and affecting parable for a frustrated present-day America preparing to wave good-bye to its president and his wrongdoings. The film has built-in cachet for American audiences because much of the disgrace of Watergate has been relived in an all-encompassing “Bushgate.” When Langella’s Nixon, responding to Frost’s questioning of the legally dubious activity he undertook under the aegis of presidential authority, delivers the classic line, “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal,” it’s impossible not to feel a little déjà vu. One can imagine today’s outgoing president trying to justify his own misdeeds with this kind of specious reasoning.

The film’s strength lies in its storytelling, which somehow makes a series of television interviews riveting. Chronicling the interviews from conception to reception, Frost/Nixon begins with Frost’s initial interest in Nixon and tireless, self-financed efforts to orchestrate the interviews for broadcast, and concludes with the acclaim he enjoys for his achievement at the price of Nixon’s reputation. The film emphasizes the lack of confidence sponsors, networks, and fellow researchers had in Frost’s ability to grill Nixon. Frost is portrayed as more of a naive, bumbling playboy than a serious journalist, which adds even more dramatic weight to his conquest of “Tricky Dick” Nixon. In point of fact, Frost was an established journalist in Britain whom Nixon underestimated when he agreed to the interviews. Meanwhile, Langella makes his Nixon an almost sympathetic character, partly offsetting the negative associations arising from his involvement with Watergate.

The centerpiece of the picture is a fictional late-night phone conversation between Frost and Nixon in which the former president reveals his feelings about his failures, achievements, and the loneliness that’s plagued him throughout his life, offering a private glimpse of a man whose bloated ego is encrusted with insecurities. The sequence also serves as the catalyst for Frost’s redoubled preparation for the final, climactic interview of the film.

The acting on display from Langella is superb and will surely garner an Oscar nomination. The up-and-coming Sheen, undeniably brilliant, is nevertheless—to the credit of Langella—overshadowed by his Nixon co-star. The supporting cast is also fleshed-out with solid performances from Kevin Bacon as one of Nixon’s closest advisers, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as research aides, and Matthew Macfadyen as a producer friend of Frost’s.

Howard seems to have matured as a director in the years since A Beautiful Mind. His elegant direction of the on-camera interview sequences is intimate, and he maintains the brewing tension and urgency between the two men off-camera. Peter Morgan’s script is polished and poignant, though it does suffer from the kind of fictional liberties taken with Frost’s character to heighten the drama. It’s a stretch to imagine David Frost was so unprepared and so unaware of the importance of his undertaking. Nixon remains a bull of an opponent while Frost is reduced to a Little Engine That Could for dramatic effect.

Frost/Nixon also suffers, to a degree, from its compact size and narrow scope, feeling sometimes like it could have been a television movie. But Howard cleverly embraces the tropes of TV interviews by employing close-ups during the tense on-air interrogations. Howard is clearly aware that the camera allows him to capture subtle changes of facial expression that were invisible to audiences on Broadway.

Indeed, Frost/Nixon is in some ways a tribute to television itself. 400 million people around the world watched Nixon’s resignation, and 45 million Americans alone tuned in to view the first of the Frost interviews. TV’s unmatched ability to broadcast information on a massive scale, while at the same time bringing world-historical events into the intimacy of the home, is the ultimate theme of Howard’s film.

There is no doubt this will be a contender in the 2008 Oscars. Frost/Nixon is a simmering portrait of a battle of egos between two remarkable men and the backstage workings of the media. It truly is Ron Howard’s most accomplished work yet.