Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Strong performances continue to clutter up American cinema in 2008. Three strong contenders emerge from Ron Howard's latest film, Frost/Nixon. Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), the movie is based on his play which debuted in London's West End. The original London cast returns, with Frank Langella (Superman Returns) in his Tony award-winning role as disgraced former president Richard Nixon, and Michael Sheen (The Queen) as famed TV host David Frost. The film depicts the behind-the-scenes events surrounding Nixon's 1977 television interview with Frost. In obtaining an interview with the former president, talk show host Frost saw an opportunity for fame and glory. The embattled Frost was losing ground in his fight to keep himself on the air in Australia and Britain after already having lost a broadcast in New York. This would be a chance to regain relevance in his industry. For Nixon, it would be an opportunity to rehabilitate his reputation after the Watergate debacle, submitting himself to an interviewer that in all likelihood would refrain from hard-hitting questions. Langella and Sheen prove to be evenly matched onscreen, even if their characters don't seem to be at first glance. Langella's Nixon is crafty, hiding a keen intellect underneath a deceptive mask of age and lumbering physical non-agility. Before one interview session, he innocently makes small talk with Frost. Just as the floor director counts down to camera rolling, Nixon slips in a question to Frost in order to unsettle him, "You have a pleasant evening last night? You do any fornicating?" But Sheen's Frost is not as overmatched as everybody thinks. After agreeing to avoid any questions on Watergate until their fourth session, he leads into their first conversation with the question, "Why didn't you burn the tapes?" Though only slightly ruffling Nixon's feathers with his impatience, the incident seems to encapsulate Frost's showmanship. This quality is later demonstrated to be invaluable in preserving the attention focused on the interviews, as he deals with criticism from the journalistic establishment for his lack of credibility, and wrestles with raising financing for the endeavor. Yet despite the larger than life characters that front the film, its emotional heart is Sam Rockwell's interpretation of James Reston. One of Frost's researchers, it is Reston who seems to inspire Frost to reach beyond just the banal anecdotes that, as Reston puts it, would fascinate a "talk show host." Reston believes it is their job to give Nixon the "trial he never had." Rockwell (Choke) is explosive in this small role which essentially serves as Frost's conscience, and I predict an Oscar nomination in his near future. The most surprising achievement director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) accomplishes is staying out of the way of his actors. Instead, he focuses on broadening the play to cinematic scale. Some of it doesn't work, like an annoying framing device where some of the peripheral players in the drama relate the story from the future. In this case, I'm unaware if this was a device used in the play, but it seems to be a pretentious attempt to inject a false historical grandeur to the proceedings. Some of it does, like shooting at expansive locations in California and curiously, tightening the frame with frequent closeups, revealing nuance that would be difficult to see onstage. Perhaps it is Howard's own experience as an actor that serves him best in this film, trusting his cast to act the heck out of their parts. Frost/Nixon is easy to recommend. It transcends its stage roots to become a quite gripping example of the power of performance, and how filmmaking can hone it to an even sharper degree than the theater can. Frost/Nixon is in limited release.