Thursday, January 15, 2009

Frost/Nixon: Battle royale

Frost/Nixon (2008) • View trailer for Frost/Nixon
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, and rather too harshly, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.09
Buy DVD: Frost/Nixon • Buy Blu-Ray: Frost/Nixon [Blu-ray]

"And the American people?"

David Frost's question, although hardly a surprise when it emerges during the climactic fourth interview, nonetheless seems to catch his subject off-guard.
Despite the increased agitation of his research team — from right, journalist Bob
Zelnick (Oliver Platt), author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and veteran
producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) — David Frost (Michael Sheen, far
left) refuses to believe he'll be outmatched, outgunned and outfoxed when former
U.S. President Richard Nixon faces him during the first of four upcoming
interviews. Frost quickly discovers, however, that he has much to learn about
shrewd, skilled subjects with agendas of their own.

And in that moment, as his features sag slightly, and his eyes betray a blend of surrender and wan hope — perhaps redemption really does come from baring one's soul? — actor Frank Langella ceases to exist. We are, instead, witnessing the crumbling of former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon.

The transformation, creeping up on us throughout director Ron Howard's Frost/ Nixon, is complete. And astonishing.

It's a fascinating performance, all the more so because Langella doesn't really look a thing like Nixon. But the actor clearly studied every facial tic and physical mannerism, from the slightly stooped walk to the jowly frown that forever seemed poised between censure and admiration. Langella radiates the sense of Nixon, every facet of the man's complex personality either on view or slyly suggested.

("I was determined not to do an impression," Langella explains, in the press notes. "I looked in him for the thing I look for in every character I play: What is his soul about?")

Langella has had plenty of practice, since both he and Michael Sheen — as Frost — starred when playwright/screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) debuted this stage drama at London's Donmar Warehouse in August 2006. Following a subsequent transition to Broadway, Langella won a Tony Award for best actor in a drama.

It's easy to see why.

Aside from the eerie sense that we're witnessing some resurrection of Richard Nixon in Frank Langella's body, the actor also manages the near impossible: He actually engenders sympathy for a man it has become fashionable to despise. Despite the oily, unctuous manner; despite the naked, self-serving desire — glittering in Langella's eyes — to engage in what he imagines will be damage control, simply to revive a reputation in tatters; despite all the glib maneuvering that prompted the feared nickname of "Tricky Dick," this man emerges as a tragic figure.

Perhaps no less reviled, but pathetic nonetheless.

Langella's performance is one of the two amazing aspects of Howard's film. The other, thanks to the clever way Morgan orchestrates his script in three acts — prologue and establishing maneuvers; hideous battle of unequals; revelatory climax — we're on the edge of our seats in tense anticipation, despite knowing with certainty how these events eventually play out.

As he accomplished with equal brilliance in Apollo 13, Howard builds a palpable level of suspense: enough to make us wonder if perhaps our memories are wrong, and that in fact Nixon humiliated Frost back in the summer of 1977, and did regain some of his former glory.

Early on, that's an accurate assessment ... which is what makes this story so rich with drama.

Frost, at the time a jet- setting playboy whose superficial television interview style owed much to a background in stand-up comedy, grew fascinated with this American president who had done the unthinkable by resigning. As clearly conveyed by Sheen, Frost obviously felt that landing Nixon as a subject would be a great "get": something of a lark that would further cement his rising celebrity status.

Although businesslike about his own place in the world of entertainment, Frost doesn't seem to take the interview itself seriously ... which gives Nixon and his chief of staff, Lt. Col. Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon, crisply effective), the smell of opportunity. Surely, a veteran statesman who routinely engaged in verbal duels with savvy world leaders could bowl over a creampuff Brit who — perish forfend — likes laceless shoes (a certain sign of effeminacy).

But regardless of what seems a scandalously frivolous air, Frost is shrewd enough to bring along John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen, late of the great UK TV series MI5), onetime director general of the BBC, as co-producer. Birt hires seasoned journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), a former national bureau chief for National Public Radio; he, in turn, augments the team with prolific author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell).

In Morgan's script, Reston becomes the conscience of this unlikely quartet: the impassioned voice demanding that Frost give Nixon the trial that Gerald Ford's pardon spared the American public. Rockwell plays Reston as the proverbial angry young man: feisty to the point of alienating everybody else in the room.

But Frost admires spunk, and we see in Sheen's expression that he feels this researcher might prove useful.

Sheen's Frost therefore becomes the flamboyant D'Artagnan to an unlikely trio of musketeers: Macfadyen's measured Birt, always the peacemaking voice of reason; Platt's wisecracking Zelnick, forever waiting for Frost to wake up and smell the coffee; and Rockwell's impatient, exasperated Reston, convinced that Nixon will devour this jokey talk-show host for lunch.

Scruffy underdogs, all four of them ... a point driven home with conviction when, as the first of the four interviews prepares to get under way, we see the polished, immaculately tailored, perfectly coifed — and far more numerous — team of researchers and handlers on Nixon's side. They're too well-bred to smirk, but Howard captures the smug superiority in their eyes.

Indeed, their attitude is well-founded. Nixon demolishes Frost during the first interview, and Sheen's face is a study in almost comical terror: the frozen, helpless expression of a deer caught in the headlights, seconds before being smashed into oblivion.

No prize fight ever went down with a more decisive victory, and of course that's precisely the way Howard orchestrates this film: like the pugilistic battle he choreographed so well in Cinderella Man.

Zelnick and Reston see their worst fears realized on camera: Before their very eyes, Nixon is rebuilding his image to suit his own opinion of himself.

We keep waiting for Frost to come to his senses, but — as Zelnick and Reston have expected — it simply ain't gonna happen. At the end of the day, Frost is more Merv Griffin than Dan Rather, and hopelessly out of his league.

And, it would seem, Frost remains unwilling to take the situation seriously, as suggested by the affable grin Sheen displays while insisting that the first chat didn't go all that badly.

That's actually the most agonizing part of the story, and the element that builds so much tension and suspense: Frost's apparent refusal to do his homework. Like some college kid who'd rather go clubbing, Frost is forever ducking hard research in order to spend another night out on the town with girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), whom he meets shortly before pitching the interview series to Nixon.

Except it's not that simple, as Macfadyen's concerned Birt makes clear: Frost isn't happy with how things are going — we can see it in Sheen's eyes — and he retreats to the party scene not because he's frivolous, but because this is the world that he does know well, and he needs to reassure his ego.

But how can that possibly help during subsequent verbal skirmishes with Tricky Dick?

Ah, that's where real life proves stranger than fiction: where fate — and Nixon's own complicated ego — take an unexpected turn. And, having built to this final half-hour, Howard unleashes all the guns; this climax has all the bravura intensity of a live stage experience, and it's riveting.

The production work is impeccable, as always is the case with Howard's films; the sense of time and place are conveyed both by the frequently amusing 1970s clothing and the architecture of the various locales, most notably the re-created La Casa Pacifica, Nixon's "Western White House" in San Clemente.

Composer Hans Zimmer's spare score is nonetheless quite powerful, its quiet themes deftly amplifying the story's developing tension.

Howard's impeccable screen translation of Morgan's play will endure as one of the great American political dramas, in the august company of films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and (how's this for irony?) All the President's Men. It's a fascinating slice of history, and a gripping piece of drama.

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