Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: Frost/Nixon

Most actors spend their careers seeking roles as meaty as the two main ones in "Frost/Nixon." On one side, you have British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), known more as a well-groomed personality than a hard-hitting journalist. Frost briefly had a taste of American fame when his syndicated talk show premiered in New York, but it was quickly cancelled. As Frost tells his manager (Matthew Macfayden), "Success in America is unlike success anywhere else."

On the other side, you have disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). After resigning the presidency under fear of impeachment in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Nixon was unable to retain his former glory. Near the beginning of the film, we see Nixon telling witty anecdotes to a mostly bored crowd at an orthodontics society dinner, which then does nothing but slam him with questions about Watergate. Nixon, more than anything, wanted the glory and public adoration that goes along with the spotlight back, and so when his agent (Toby Jones) informs him that Frost has offered him $600,000 to do a full-coverage interview, Nixon takes the opportunity. One of his biggest motivations was a lack of confidence in Frost; the former president figures that Frost is not at his level, and will be a fine stepping stone on the road to rehabilitating his image.

Most people share this opinion; not only because he's a foreigner, but an "illegitimate journalist," not a single U.S. broadcasting network will co-finance the interviews. Frost has to wheel and deal and call in every favor he has, essentially putting all his eggs in one single, fragile basket. He hires Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), a political contributor for ABC at the time, as well as James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), a professor at North Carolina who fears that Frost will botch the greatest possible opportunity to show Nixon to the world as a crook and a liar.

At first, Frost could really care less; this is nothing more than a lark for him, an invitation to those American high-society parties he so desires. Nixon sees this and takes full advantage; he knows he can outsmart Frost, and does so with exchanges like the following:

Nixon: Have a pleasant evening?
Frost: Yes.
Producer: Camera in 5, 4, 3....
Nixon: You do any fornicating?
Producer: Roll camera.
(Frost stutters)

However, as he gets kicked around in the first few interviews, his facade of confidence begins to break, until a fateful conversation between he and Nixon, which shows him that maybe, the man known as "Tricky Dick" is only human after all. He pounces on this during the Watergate portion of the interview, and if you don't know how the real-life interviews unfolded, I won't ruin it here.

Sheen, so great as Tony Blair in "The Queen," is great as Frost, with his perpetual game-show grin. Langella, however, owns this movie. Both actors have worked with these characters for years onstage before director Ron Howard brought them to film, but his Nixon is not only a dead ringer, but also surprisingly human. Unlike Oliver Stone's backhanded "W.", Nixon is not a caricature based on popular opinion of the man; he is broken by his attempted coverup, and wants nothing more than for the whole thing to just go away so that he can continue his life, and maybe attain a small amount of his former glory. Some perspective on how hard this role is to pull off: it seems odd to imagine, but Nixon was once seen to be as much of a disgrace to the presidency as many now consider George W. Bush to be.

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