Sunday, January 11, 2009
I've finally seen all the big contenders. "Frost/Nixon" was the only Oscar hopeful that I was not able to see in advance, and we rectified it with an afternoon screening at AMC Castleton.
(A couple of quick asides before I get to the meat of the review. Why was this movie playing exclusively at Castleton instead of the Landmark "art cinema" a few miles to the west? By playing more mainstream fare and now letting some of the bigger indie films be booked elsewhere, Landmark is in danger of losing its reputation as the place to go for alternative cinema in Indianapolis. Also, AMC charged us the full admission price of $19 to attend a 4:20 p.m. show. Before long they'll be claiming that a 2:30 show is not a matinee.)
"Frost/Nixon" would not have made my Top 10 List had I seen it in time, but it would be very close -- let's call it No. 11. It's a solid political/media drama, nowhere in the class of heavyweights like "All the President's Men," but comfortably ensconced in that second tier of worthy efforts like "Primary Colors." It's not to be missed mainly because of Frank Langella's powerhouse performance as Richard Nixon.
Now, Langella looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Nixon. But in his mannerisms and the way he pitches his voice, we believe that he could be the 37th president, who resigned in disgrace after the Watergate cover-up. Langella has gotten to the essence of the man -- the grandeur, the venality, the puckish impudence against those who looked down on his humble origins. The actor has captured the man, in a way that I think Josh Brolin did not do with George W. Bush in "W." Watching that film, I never thought I was looking at anything other than Oliver Stone's own green-eyed interpretation of a president he despises. Frank Langella's Nixon carries a piece of the real man's spirit in his pocket.
Less successful as a performance and as a character is Michael Sheen as David Frost, the British talk show fop who somehow managed to be the one who gave Nixon the only real grilling he ever got over his crimes. Frost is depicted as a man who always had a genial, lightweight front put up before him. If that is true, they were too successful in portraying him, since we never get to see behind the facade. Oh, there are scenes of him pleading with an advertiser or network honcho and calling friends for cash to make the Nixon interview happen, but they center more on the process than the man. David Frost remains an affable, good-looking enigma, which is perhaps appropriate since he his role was to ask the questions, not exist as the answer.
The film, written by Peter Morgan and based on his play, is beautifully shot by Ron Howard, whose visual style has grown admirably from his early beginnings. The scenes of Nixon at his retirement estate at San Clemente are hauntingly evocative -- the fallen king doomed to dole out his remaining years in powerless exile, chewing the bitter root of his failings. It reminds me of some of the later scenes in "Citizen Kane," and the real man it was based on, William Randolph Hearst, stewing in his own overblown castle a few hundred miles north on the California coast.
The story reaches a crescendo with the actual tapings of the interview, which start out horribly for Frost, before he finally gets his licks in when discussing Watergate.
Nixon comes across more charismatic than you'd think, a man who ascended the ladder of power by sheer grit and ruthless determination, and was brought down by the vindictive things he did to get and retain power. In many ways, the qualities that got Richard Nixon to the White House determined that he would exit it so ignobly. "Frost/Nixon" is a compelling peek at his legacy, and his shame.
3.5 stars out of four