' Cinema Romantico: Frost/Nixon

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frost/Nixon

At the end of this take on the infamous David Frost/Richard Nixon four part interview there was a line that popped into my head, all on its own, without me having to search for it, and it came, of all movies, via this year's "Get Smart" when Steve Carrell says with deadpan grace: "They're bad guys, but they're people too." This is not Oliver Stone's Nixon. This is Ron Howard's Nixon.

"Frost/Nixon", written by Peter Morgan and based on his play, is not just a historical re-enactment, it gets inside the characters heads a little bit, if not as much as one would hope, but also at times feels more like a documentary, and not just because the film employs the tactic of showing tidbits of supposed interviews with the principal players long after the fact. It seems as if most of this is happening at too great a distance.

Yes, at the very start of the film you will be aware Frank Langella is playing Richard Nixon but that feeling will quickly pass. There is a brief sequence of Nixon at some banquet giving a most un-Presidential type speech and it is horribly painful and awkward. This is a good scene because it paints Nixon's motivations without having to say them (though, of course, the following scene does then go ahead and say them): he has been relegated to this sort of crap because he must stay far away from Washington and the political game as a result of his fall from grace. He needs to exonerate himself and so when this David Frost comes calling with the siren of a substantial payday for a TV interview, the ex-President and his backers agree because they figure Frost isn't up to journalistic snuff.

As played by Michael Sheen we quickly suspect that indeed Frost isn't up to snuff. ("Did he just call him a performer? Not an interviewer or a journalist, but a performer?" asks another character of Frost at one moment.) He favors shoes without laces (the horror) and enjoys picking up lovely ladies with witty banter on transatlantic airplane flights and seems more concerned with the potential ratings windfall of the interviews than having them be - as his colleagues Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) wish - the trial Nixon never had.

Trouble is no American TV network wants to pick up and subsequently pay for this broadcast and so Frost finds himself having to finance the whole operation out of his own pocket.

My main issue with the film is an insufficient feeling of real arc to David Frost's story. We're told that, yes, he's struggling financially and his TV shows are going off the air and at one point he tells us on the nose - as they would say in screenwriting class - "I'm in this for all I've got". But it just doesn't seem enough. You never feel as if the stakes are getting raised scene to scene. He's telling us he's in it for all he's got but we don't necessarily believe that to the case. "Are you really sure he's in this for all he's got? That's not the impression I'm getting," you want to say.

The real life interviews thankfully follow the traditional cinematic formula of Frost getting beaten to a mangy pulp in the first three interviews and then suddenly reversing himself via a motivating factor (a drunken call from Nixon) and becoming the British Mike Wallace to get the ex-President to confess. (If real life hadn't followed this formula, rest assured, Ron Howard would have re-written history.) But, again, the film fails to make this sudden swing convincing. Really? Now he's gonna' take off the gloves and attack? Does he have a switch on the back of his head that someone just flipped?

Oh, and "It happened that way in real life" is not a suitable answer.

I didn't feel much for Frost which makes it all the more strange that I felt a little something for Nixon at the very end. The speech he gives to his interviewing opponent is rather quite poignant, and no doubt it was calculated as such. But then I had another thought. At least Nixon was in touch enough to sit in that chair and finally stop deluding himself and come to the realization that, yeah, he messed some stuff up. If George W. was in that chair do you think he'd ever grasp that?

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