Monday, December 15, 2008

Frost gets the best of Tricky Dick


In 1977, three years after the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) selects British TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) to conduct a one-on-one, exclusive interview. Though Nixon believes it will be easy to snowball Frost, and Frost's own team doubts their boss can stand up to the former president, what actually unfolds is an unexpectedly candid and revealing interview before the court of public opinion.


Political thriller Frost/Nixon is one of the best and most surprising movies of the year. Adapting Peter Morgan's hit play could have been deadly - two men, one microphone, lots of dialogue - but Ron Howard gives us a masterclass in Hollywood storytelling. It's about bringing a liar to justice - or is it about forgiveness? That's one of the more controversial aspects of the film: some will feel it lets Tricky Dick off the hook. Even after he has gone to the grave, the lies keep coming. It's true that he becomes a pitiable figure by the end but who's to say that's not a reasonable version of the truth? The movie, adapted from Peter Morgan's stage play, co-stars Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) reprising their stage roles in the film. Morgan became interested in the subject after watching a biography on Frost. He was “driven by this image I had of these two men,” Morgan said. “The glamorous Frost, 54,000 feet up in the air, going backwards and forwards over the Atlantic on Concorde. And Nixon, a man living, metaphorically, in a cave, withdrawn and in disgrace.” The movie begins when Frost, an Australian TV talk show host, is losing his ratings. After watching a news bit about Nixon, Frost gets an idea about doing an onscreen interview with the ex-President and making him openly confess to his crimes in the White House. Negotiations begin, backers come and go, and Nixon waffles about agreeing to the interview. Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar steps in to represent Nixon and demands a whopping $600,000. Frost, having exhausted every angle, finally agrees to put up the money from his own till and borrowing from his friends. Sheen is exceptional in the film. In addition to courting a young woman (Rebecca Hall) he meets on the Concorde during the negations, Frost appears anxiety ridden every moment of the months it takes to cinch the deal. With his eye set on the prize of people tuning to hear Nixon’s only confession, he appears almost blindsided to the real possibilities of what could happen. Howard takes us inside Nixon’s own compound, La Casa Pacifica—Nixon’s Western White House in San Clemente, California to film some of the story. This is where Nixon spent years hiding from his disgrace while enjoying a game of golf, pacifying his anger in one-too-many drinks or recollecting the important meetings with world leaders that took place there. Langella portrays every one of these moments impeccably. “I was determined not to do an impression,” Langella said. “I looked in him for the thing I look for in every character I play: What is his soul about? What is his inner heart and mind about? You really can’t play a ‘politician,’ a ‘musician,’ a ‘serial killer.’ You don’t play the title. Everybody’s a human being, and everybody has a soul, a heart and a mind.” The real drama of the film begins when the interviews are finally set for 1977. Both Frost and Nixon have their trusted teams, each assuring the men they will be the victors. At the meeting cinching the deal, Langella is so compelling as Nixon, it’s hard to believe he’s not the real man as he tells Frost, “And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it’ll be the wilderness…with nothing, and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head.” Frost’s producers (Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and Matthew Macfadyen) are like kids in a candy store planning the show. Each segment of the interview they tape assures them Frost makes Nixon look like week-old ground beef. Nixon’s former presidential staff member, Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), is spear-heading Nixon’s team. He set the conditions of the interview and has no qualms Nixon can hold his own against the wily Frost. The men become the bull and matador in a worldwide rink. Frost wants Nixon to admit his guilt and apologize. Nixon believes he can control the interview and plans to do nothing of the sort. But the camera becomes a mirror to Nixon, and we all know, we can’t hide anything in a mirror. Morgan’s screenplay is brilliant in the way it actually turns Nixon into a sympathetic character, but also in building the drama. As each interview segment unfolds, close ups of the two men feel so real, I was held spellbound in my seat. Frost/Nixon is not only an historical update for those not around during Nixon’s years, but a must-see incredible film. A smart 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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