A blog about movies and filmmaking.

When the President does it, it’s not illegal

In drama on August 27, 2009 at 2:20 am

I just finished watching one of the five movies from last year that qualified as one of the Best Picture nominees. The Ron Howard directed, Peter Morgan written (from his own play) movie about the famous interview between former President, Richard Nixon; and the British television host, David Frost. FROST/NIXON stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in those respective roles. Langella, not really trying to replicate, or impersonate Nixon’s look or speech, is certainly acceptable in the movie. Sheen’s Frost, who I don’t know as much about – other than the small bit of things I saw in looking up these real life interviews – seems to be conveying a few different people. There’s the almost sleazy, “anything for ratings” television guy; the man who thinks he has a winning opportunity – in interviewing this shamed figure – isn’t able to find backing, or even a news network that was willing to work with the way that Frost had acquired the right to interview the former-president (paying Nixon a lot of money). Then finally, there’s the serious man, who tries to be a good person and get to the truth of the matter regarding Nixon and his involvement in one of the most famous cover-ups in American history.

There are a few other great roles in the movie, including Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick – an ABC news correspondent who gave up his position and possible embarrassment to work on these interviews. Sam Rockwell plays James Reston, Jr., an author who had written a number of books about people using power for corrupt means, and in the movie is presented as wanting to sign on for these interviews is to, as he says, “give Nixon the trial he never had”. Platt and Rockwell – along with, but less so Matthew Macfadyen, as John Birt (a newsman who would go on to head BBC and later an advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair – played a number of times on-screen by Michael Sheen and written by this movie’s screenwriter, Peter Morgan) – steal the movie. Platt in one scene is playing Nixon when they’re trying to figure out how Nixon would respond to their questions – which, funnily enough, later are shown to be right on. Rockwell is great because this is a movie where he doesn’t goof off, and is really the one person of the group that has a political and personal agenda in wanting to “stick it to Nixon”. The other major role to comment on is Rebecca Hall, as Caroline Cushing, a love interest for Frost and generally just presenting some eye-candy for this “dude-heavy” movie. Hall, who the only other role I’ve seen her in was in Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE, actually glows and I’d watch a movie just of her.

The movie, itself, I have to say didn’t really grab me. I think that the moments that it presents are important and historic – and I understand that they have to dramatize moments in order to make it engaging. But, sort of like how the Oliver Stone movie W. did with George H.W. Bush (the first president, not the recent one), took me out of the movie by presenting these larger than life figures – and in predicaments that are historic in nature – and turning them into just men. Which, I understand they were, and I’m not against demystifying historic figures, but we’re given moments that are smaller and personal that just don’t seem to mesh with the men we all know. There are moments where we see Nixon in the movie, where it seems he’s not only (and rightfully) got the world on his shoulders, but is just this weak old man who should be pitied for the things he’s gone through. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but there is just something about it that rings false. Opposite that, Sheen as Frost is seen going through multiple states of up and down and stress over the situations he’s put himself in. Here it works, maybe because I don’t know as much about David Frost the person.

The strongest parts of the movie are the moments of the actual interviews; seeing the Frost group working on what they need to know, and multiple scenes with Langella’s Nixon and his chief of staff – played by Kevin Bacon – like, during a scene where Nixon has given a speech at an Orthodontist convention and afterwards bursts into the backstage area, being very powerful. Then there’s the one moment, which seemed very heavily part of this motif in movies where guys are kind of driven by the ideal of someone, more-so than the real person – in this movie, it is a phone call (much like in THE HOAX, only we get more from the Nixon side of the conversation) where Nixon calls Frost talking about cheeseburgers and then eventually laying down the fact that these two are facing off like a pair of boxers and they’re coming down to the final round. Nixon compares them both as going to schools above their social status, being picked on by “snobs” and how they both keep trying to better themselves and those people.

This is the turning point in the movie, where the next scene we finally see Frost step up to take this encounter seriously, and more than just the ratings and money-making scheme he originally set out to do. And this leads to the pivotal moment in the movie, where we get as close to an apology and admission from Nixon as the public got. It’s a powerful moment and is only slightly dampened by a moment directly afterwards where Rockwell’s character explains to us why that moment is important. Which brings me to one of my biggest issues with the movie.

The camerawork, and approach to the movie is the different styles that are presented. There’s a lot of actual archive footage, then there are interviews of the characters – as played by the actors – explaining things that were happening. There’s a lot of documentary-like shots of the movie and then the smoother more “cinematic” shots. There are a number of recent movies that have been successful in utilizing and even crossing some of these lines much more effectively than FROST/NIXON is able to. The more recent, DISTRICT 9, uses documentary-like footage and then crosses into an actual action-adventure story that’s much more like a movie, than how it began. Then there is last year’s MAN ON WIRE, which is an actual documentary that uses interviews with the real people, archive footage of the actual events the movie is about and even dramatic recreations to fill in the blanks, while also being a tense and almost “heist-thriller” like movie. So, seeing how these movies were able to successfully cross these lines, makes me wish that FROST/NIXON had stuck with a limited scope in approach to the movie.

Overall, the movie is good. I don’t know that it should have qualified as one of the best of last year, but it brings to our age a moment where a few people were able to take to task a person that had been in power and abused that. It’s not hard to see how this movie is a stand-in for current events – from when the play and was written until when the movie came out. I guess there’s some hope that in the upcoming years we might get some similar opportunities with the last presidential term, and possibly even take it further from some interview.

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