Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Men

Just when you thought you had seen everything about Richard M. Nixon, along comes Ron Howard with Frost/Nixon making the subject all fresh and topical and, well, brilliant. I think Frost/Nixon is THE quintessential Nixon film. I scoffed when it was nominated for Best Picture, but I humbly retract. It deserves to be nominated. It’s probably the most solid piece of throwback filmmaking of 2008. When I say that, I mean that it’s just good old-fashioned storytelling of the highest order. There’s nothing particularly fancy about it; it’s just a well-made studio product. But don’t let that fool you - Frost/Nixon is one helluva film.

The decision to focus on the interviews between recently-disgraced Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and desperately-seeking-fame British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a stroke of genius, both on the part of screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted his own stage play, which had also starred Langella and Sheen) and Ron Howard. I don’t know about the general public, or at least my generation, but I didn’t know these interviews existed before this film.

There were four televised interviews that took place in 1977 between these two psychically similar (the connection is gloriously Shakespearean) men, both with nothing and everything to lose. Richard Nixon had just resigned the Presidency after the shame of Watergate. After he received a full pardon from Gerald Ford, people were outraged. He had gotten away with it on a legal level, and on a moral level, he slickly never admitted fault. David Frost, a British talk show host who had fallen from grace in his own way (his career was floundering; he longed for his former fame in the U.S.), marveled at the ratings for Nixon’s resignation and decided that he could revive his career by doing an in-depth interview with Richard Nixon. His producer, and most everyone else, thought he was insane. What could he, a mere “performer,” do? No one took him seriously, not even his inner circle. He didn’t have the chops or the credibility to get this project going.

And yet, somehow he did, hiding his struggles beneath a trained emcee’s gleaming smile, raising the funds at any cost, using his own money, never knowing if the interviews would ever be aired and all of his efforts would be for naught. He would have been worse off than ever had these interviews failed. David Frost wanted to elicit a confession from Tricky Dick. Richard Nixon wanted to set the record straight, to remind people that more happened during his administration than Watergate, to regain the public’s acceptance and to enter political life again. These interviews with Frost were viewed by him and his camp to be nothing more than fluff, an easy opportunity to get back into the limelight. It was a chance, the last chance, for both men. That's good drama.

The Nixon in this film is unlike any other portrayal of Nixon I have ever seen. Frank Langella plays him as half god/half mortal, a smooth operator, very powerful and intelligent and charming and funny, but also as someone who is deeply bitter and full of pain, anger, regret, and guilt. I just couldn’t believe how much I liked Richard Nixon when I was watching it. I was almost cheering for him. Both men are sort of equal parts relatable and pitiable, which makes the experience so rich. You can identify with them, and I did. The parallels between the two men are striking. It seems like their livelihoods are almost inextricably linked. They’re inversely proportionate: as one rises, the other falls, and that’s the only way it can be. This is a duel to the death. And it’s so thrilling to watch! I was riveted the entire time. It’s epically engaging.

I’m not quite sure why, but Frost/Nixon reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies ever, Howard Hawks’ fast-talking His Girl Friday (1939). I think it’s the really great balance between humor and tragedy, and the frank tone. I just love it.

Frost/Nixon is the perfect example of how a good script serves the film, the story, its characters, and its actors. Milk could have been this good, maybe, with a better script. Peter Morgan’s witty and insightful script for Frost/Nixon is nothing short of astounding. It brings you inside the minds of these men like few things I’ve ever seen. Sean Penn can only do so much work on his own, you know? With Frost/Nixon, EVERYTHING comes together, and it’s spectacular.

The acting in Frost/Nixon is universally amazing, from the supporting cast (Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, an underused Rebecca Hall) to the main giants (Sheen and Langella). Michael Sheen has gotten a bum rap with this film. His fantastic performance has been so overlooked that it’s ridiculous. He makes smarminess seem genuine, and he guides his character through a remarkable arc that is always believable. His face is an ever-changing canvas of emotion and likeable humanity.

And speaking of canvases of emotion, Frank Langella is like Leonardo da Vinci, and his face the Mona Lisa. Holy crap is he good in this film! It’s unreal. His Oscar nomination was a given. I actually think, at this point, that he should take home the trophy. I have to see a couple performances still, but it’s going to be damn hard to top him. He’s in a league of his own. The turning point in the film is a killer scene in which Nixon makes a late night phone call to Frost. He’s a little drunk with a lot of candor. We know that these are Nixon’s deepest-buried feelings. Every word Langella utters of what is basically a ten minute monologue is palpable and rich. It’s one of the best acted scenes in the history of cinema. Frank Langella practically redefines nuance with this role.

There’s a moment near the end of the film, in the last interview, when Frost asks Nixon about the American people, and before he answers, there’s about twenty seconds of silence as we stare into Langella’s face in close-up….it’s like we’re looking into Nixon’s very soul. Watching his face in those moments of silence, I actually got chills. There is so much going on that we can read his subtle and skillful face like a map. Frost/Nixon made me want to bow down in awe of Frank Langella. It’s a mind-blowing performance for the ages.

Frost/Nixon: the little movie that could…and did. Outstanding.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)


Bill Treadway said...

Remember I sent you The Twelve Chairs? Check that out and see what you think of Frank Langella doing comedy.

Langella has been so good for so long that I think most take him for granted. If he wins, I'll be satisfied. (Then again, I wouldn't be dissatisfied with ANY of the Best Actor nominees winning this year.)

Your review really hit it on the head. The script, the direction, the acting, it all worked. I think the only other Nixon movie that comes close is Secret Honor (1984), with that great Philip Baker Hall performance.

Another superb piece of writing, Lisa. You're the gold standard among us..

matt said...

I love the His Girl Friday comparison. The film does balance humor and pathos in a richly entertaining way reminiscent of classical Hollywood, where all you needed was great acting and a great script (this film certainly has both). Though Howard has been guilty of overdramatizing his real life subjects before (Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, anything with Russell Crowe...), I think his film gets at the heart of Nixon unlike any film I've seen (even if the actual interviews weren't quite the cultural milestone the film says they were). Langella is the kind of actor who can move between stage and screen without missing a beat. His performance is most breathtaking in extreme close-up. A great canvas, indeed.