Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)
Rather like its Best Picture co-nominee Milk, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, from Peter Morgan's screenplay of his stage play, effortlessly combines archival '70s news footage with its recreation of real events.
Rather unlike Milk, it does so very much with its eye on not just what television reflects to us of the real world and how people reflect that back, but, importantly, what television reflects, and says to us, that is not necessarily real at all, or more emotionally real to an audience because of the image-making nature of the medium. Frost/Nixon starts on television, with contemporaneous news reports of Nixon's resignation (featuring Nixon's real voice, but with a Langella helicopter wave), and the most important events in it are all made-for-television or with an eye on the impact David Frost's historic interview had on our nation's understanding of our worst president (up to that time).
With all of its heavy interwoven media and political themes, the film rests on the shoulders of two rather bright and winning, bravura performances, those of Michael Sheen (The Queen) as Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon.
Sheen plays Frost as a celebrity-obsessed climber with a taste for fame and wealth, who sees a rich opportunity in handling Nixon's first substantive post-resignation interview. He's charming when he needs to be, and manipulative, too, using everyone he can to further his own ambitions (heavy Nixonian echoes, explicity expanded upon in the film).
Langella is the perfect Nixon, and for some reason I didn't think he would be--maybe because he's so Nixonian anyway, I didn't think he could be so reflective of the real one's character. But he does a bang-up job, capturing his intelligence, arrogance, pathos and tragedy. There are moments looking at him you just see Nixon, which happened with Hopkins in Stone's movie, too, but not as often. The voice, the tone, the mannerisms, are all right on. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of the retired Nixon are gems. Langella certainly deserves his Best Actor nomination, though I thought it would be a supporting nod, with Sheen getting the Best Actor slot. Certainly, Sheen would fill that bill better than Brad Pitt for the bloated retread The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Other supporting performances which deserve special mention are Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Frost's investigative team, reporters Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr., respectively. Both reporters have a healthy disregard for Nixon, which Frost aims to distance himself from in order to preserve the relationship he develops with Nixon, and both get him all the information he needs to cover the journalistic ground he needs to cover. Both actors convey their professionalism, humor, and, later, frustration as they feel Nixon slipping through Frost's grasp during the interview sessions. Matthew McFadyen, played by John Birt, is Frost's producer and liaison between Frost and everyone else involved in the effort, giving him encouragement, straight talk and ringside assistance. Birt plays him with self-assurance and a real, touching concern for Frost as a person, as well as his career and success.
And then there is Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), with the small but quite memorable role of Frost's girlfriend Caroline Cushing. I felt that Hall, of all the players in Vicky, was most deserving of awards recognition for that film, and I would not have objected had she been Oscar-nominated for Frost/Nixon, either. She seems to have stepped into big parts in big films fully formed and ready to go. In both roles, in the Woody Allen and Ron Howard films, she is beautiful, deep, real and opinionated. And yet the two characters could not have less in common, even in their physicality. As Cushing she lands in Frost's lap and sticks with him, making a striking impression on all of the film's characters with whom she comes in contact, as well as on the audience. More Rebecca Hall, please.
There is a very wonderful scene on the telephone between Nixon and Frost before the last, blockbuster interview session, on Watergate. While it is entirely based upon things we know about Nixon much more than on anything factual, it tells the story so well that we wish it were true, even if it is not. It's the perfect invented dramatic scene for its place in the story. It's probably the best scene in the film, and references to it later are revelatory beyond their surface. Should Peter Morgan win an Oscar for it? Of course.
Frost/Nixon is fast-paced, fun, funny, gorgeously shot and edited, with a stellar cast and subtle, complicated messages which underlie all of that. Should it win Best Picture and Director? Of course it should.
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