Monday, April 27, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Retro Active Critique #4

Two distinctive sides with their own agendas. Two vastly different men, so linked in their desperation they can actually relate to one another. A duel with much at stake wherein only one will ultimately prevail. A worthy critique of "Frost/Nixon" will need to be as textured as the film itself. To do it any justice is what I hope to achieve, as daunting a feat as when Americans in 1974 hoped for a confession or an apology from a Ford-pardoned Richard Nixon. Luminous is the story, as are the performances and the film's execution by director Ron Howard. With it's strong script having been a successful stage play, this is a film that could have been great no matter what. But in taking on "Frost/Nixon" as a film, Howard and his team have elevated the stage play to the realm of art. 
As the story gets underway, Richard Nixon (the astonishing Frank Langella) has just become the first and only president of the United States to resign from office, following the Watergate scandal. Shortly afterwards, he is pardoned by Gerald Ford, his successor, and the disappointed people in the United States feel that he has "gone out the back door." No admittance of guilt, no confession, no trial. Many are angered and further disillusioned by the outcome because they are still anxious about the war in Vietnam, and a great number of other matters which have left that sense of 70's paranoia running rampant. Just as the public is disappointed, Nixon himself hopes to somehow set the record straight and retain some level of respect for his presidential legacy.

Enter British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen). The most unlikely person to throw himself into the political ring, Frost adopts the possibility of attaining an interview with Richard Nixon as a way to get himself new exposure in the United States, some credibility and of course the sheer potential for big TV numbers. As Frost explains his intentions to his trusted producer, John Birt (played by a nearly unrecognizable Matthew MacFayden, Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice"): "It's indescribable. Success in America is unlike success anywhere else. The emptiness when it's gone. The sickening thought it may never come back." The international playboy hopes to get his table back at Sardi's in New York. The intentions of Nixon and Frost couldn't be more opposed, and yet so congruent. After all, the only reason Nixon and his people agree to the interview, despite Frost's lack of credibility, is that he would be an easier interrogator than Mike Wallace. And he would pay them $600,000, an unprecedented price at that time for a news interview.

From there the story becomes a wonderful study of the two men, with their personal hopes and their demons. What is so moving is that this is a very human story anyone can relate to. The film also nicely moves us through the process each man must go through to get to the final confrontation: the interviews. For Frost, his struggle to get funding or network and commercial support, and the preparation of his very anxious team. For Nixon, preparation for what he hopes will be his return to the good graces of the public, a chance for redemption.

As Frost's team dives into the Nixon tapes and all sorts of research in order to give him "the trial he never had", they also represent the shifting mood of the public. After all, at first when the scandal hit in 1974 people were downright distraught by the matter. The interviews finally came together nearly three years later, and there was some perspective then (although not nearly as much as today, when Nixon's crimes seem practically mild compared to the actions of our government officials since - an aspect of the film that makes it all the more powerful and forces the audience to question the treatment of Nixon, in retrospect.) There is even some humor seeping into the public consciousness; for example, while Frost is attending movie premieres and keeping up his front, his team work away at framing questions on topics such as wiretapping, and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) says, "This guy wiretapped 17 people! Including his own brother. But you know what, we can't ask him about his brother. Because frankly, if Donald Nixon were my brother I'd wiretap him too." Sam Rockwell's portrayal of team member James Reston, Jr. is the angrier one, with a greater sense of urgency in bringing down the ex-president, representing that side of the public conscience.

Despite the thrilling subject matter and performances, (Langella's stoically moving one, in particular, should be used as a study for actors in training), the beautifully human story, and historical elements, one aspect of the film I noticed more clearly upon the third viewing is its construction, the direction. Ron Howard has been known for not having a "signature style". I have to disagree. My take on his style is that he has incredible agility, energy, and passion for detail and for his subject matter. This may not be called style, but it is a drive that results in plenty of it. As was similarly the case in another terrific Howard film, "Apollo 13", a film that captured its subject so intensely that one is at the very edge of his or her seat, exhilarated and moved from beginning to end. I felt the same movement and excitement in watching "Frost/Nixon", but by the third time I began to see the real "game" that Howard brought to the film.

For example, there is a wonderful scene when Frost, his producer John Birt, and his new girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) go to Nixon's home to meet him and his team, and to exchange the initial $200,000 fee Frost had agreed to pay for the interviews (turns out, from his own pocket.) There is already such electricity in this scene. Underlying the pleasantries is a palpable sense of foreboding and concern from both sides, for both men. Nixon's men are sizing Frost up, and Frost and his entourage are doing their best to be respectful and cordial within the enormity of the moment in which they find themselves.

This scene is exhilarating for its sheer drama. The group could be standing in Nixon's den, and the exchanges could occur on a single camera with no movement, and the moment would be fascinating. But the agile, passionate and (dare I say it) artistic Howard shoots this scene with so many shots –– angles, on a hand-held camera, on a steady camera, close-ups of hands, a movement from Caroline from the side –– just so much happens visually that you are living and breathing in this exciting moment, not realizing the effects that have been added to the experience. There is agility and an athleticism to his direction. A scene that could have been great in one shot is done with maybe fifty. And the result is also impressive in that it doesn't make the viewer nauseous, which would surely be the case in a lesser director's hands. Instead, one is subconsciously more intrigued by the very simple scene, and moved more deeply without knowing why.

When I actually noticed and started counting the shots, I found it breathtaking. I noticed this technique again in a scene where Frost is speaking to a TV network executive on a pay phone near the airport, the next shot is the executive on the other end of the call; then, back to Frost, but this time, only his mirrored reflection in the silver face of the pay phone; then, cut to a side angle of Frost with producer Birt facing the camera, looking at him with concern. And above Birt, a tiny plane flies overhead. These shots come in quick succession in a simple scene that could have had nothing of visual interest going on to work. This style is reminiscent of new wave cinema, in fact –– the difference being that the inconsequential things that happen visually occur in the midst of great consequence. It's as if Ron Howard likes to match his subject's travails, and take things further than is expected of him. Yet, with all that he adds in, there is always a simple and clean result. To create something magnificent within that fine line of too much and just enough is pure genius.

In the end, Frost manages to be the victor and Nixon concedes in giving a confession in the final interview. The last scene is very touching. It is between the two men back at Nixon's home in California. At this point, Nixon has begun to wax philosophical about his predicament. He asks Frost whether he enjoys the parties he attends (after all, this was 1977: discos and Studio 54.) Frost says of course he does. Nixon tells him, "You got no idea how fortunate that makes you. Liking people, being liked. Having that facility... It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinged on being liked. I'm better suited to a life of thought, debate, intellectual discipline. Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe you should have been the politician and I, the rigorous interviewer." He couldn't have said it better, and I was bawling at the end this film. We not only like Nixon after "Frost/Nixon" but even love him as this beautifully portrayed –– and touching –– fallen warrior who finally admitted his mistakes.

The real Nixon wouldn't attain any peace of mind in his lifetime about the Watergate scandal and his resignation. If only he could have known that over the years we've come to acknowledge that, despite his mistakes, we've had worse presidents; they did get away with their actions, they did not get impeached, nor were they forced to resign. In a year of incredibly good work, these are just several reasons why "Frost/Nixon" was undisputedly my favorite film of 2008.

Now for "Frost/Nixon" & the year 1977 (when the story ends), rather than the requisite disco tune, I think Alan Parsons Project's "I Wouldn't Wanna Be Like You" is appropriate to take us out.

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