Friday, December 12, 2008

Film: "Frost/Nixon": A knockout political sparring match

By Hap Erstein

Ron Howard has already made a boxing film (Cinderella Man), but it pales next to the verbal sparring match he conjures up in Frost/Nixon, a crafty, visceral and cerebral adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play on the taped television interviews between surface-slick British talk show host David Frost and disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon.

Morgan is probably best known for writing 2006's The Queen, a similar combination of meticulous research and out-and-out conjecture over a more delicate clash between Queen Elizabeth II and England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, soon after the death of Princess Diana. Both works are set in what Morgan calls “the twilight between historical fact and fiction,” a zone that breathes unexpected life into otherwise dramatically dry material.

Morgan’s screenplay for Frost/Nixon is a textbook example of opening up a claustrophobic theater piece, giving the story just enough cinematic mobility, using the storytelling techniques of documentary films, while keeping intact the knock-down-drag-out power of the interview sessions.

Both Frost and Nixon have a great deal at stake. Frost has not only bankrolled the interviews himself, without major sponsors or network commitment, he is betting his waning reputation that he can draw from Nixon the confession of involvement in the Watergate cover-up he had yet to utter. For Nixon, it is a highly visible opportunity to reframe his presidential legacy, with an interviewer known for lobbing celebrity soft balls.

Although the movie’s title suggests a two-character story, it is anything but that, being populated with the coaches and trainers for each “fighter.” For Nixon, there is his fiercely loyal chief of staff, Marine Lt. Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). For Frost, there is producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), veteran TV journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and most especially idealistic, hot-headed academic James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell).

Their prep sessions, post-interview analyses and critiques, all leading up to the climactic final showdown on Watergate, form much of the film’s preoccupation. Having lived through the Nixon administration and having had my share of uncooperative interview subjects, I may be more naturally drawn to this subject than many younger moviegoers, but Frost/Nixon is anything but a dry, uninvolving exercise.

Adding substantially to the interest level are the performances of Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, both of whom originated these roles on the London stage, before bringing them to New York two seasons ago. That longterm familiarity with these characters and with each other pays off on-screen, aided further by the use of extreme close-ups.

Langella is particularly agile as the naturally stiff Nixon, employing all the stoop-shouldered gestures and shifty looks, without drifting into caricature. Whether it was Morgan’s intention, Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is so human and fragile, it ultimately earns our sympathy for the man. Having already won the Tony Award for playing Nixon, this deepened performance is surely destined for an Oscar nomination as well.

As is The Queen, where he played Blair, Sheen is again up against an inherently more interesting character and, as a result, takes a back seat in the acting department, regardless of the outcome in the story. Still, he radiates a rakish charisma and gets us rooting for Frost in this far-fetched undertaking.

Together, they carry the film, notably in an eleventh-hour scene in which an inebriated Nixon calls Frost to test his mental state just before the final interview. It, like the rest of the film, is wordy, but it plays with all the tension of an action sequence.

Frost/Nixon captures and dramatizes a crucial moment in our nation’s history, getting inside the head of the only president to resign from office, wrestling him to the ground, but not quite pinning him.

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