starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebbecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
written by Peter Morgan
directed by Ron Howard
2008, 122 mins., Rated R
** (out of ****)
I can't think of why or how something so potentially thrilling ends up being rather dull. The very concept, and the intensity of the situation and the interview, it could all very well lead up to one of the most nerve-wracking verbal jests ever filmed on camera, but instead ends up being a game of "I wonder when they'll cut to a different close-up?" I mean, is it something inherent to director Ron Howard, who literally put me to sleep when I tried to watch The Da Vinci Code on my birthday? Or when he made me not interested in a giant fire-breathing monster in Willow? Now, I honestly have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy, but here's three movies where I'm supposed to be heavily engaged, nearly glued to the screen in anticipating for the next word, the next action, or the next clue - and I'm bored out of my wits. And keep in mind, this isn't a diss to the movie as a whole: I think there are some truly awesome moments and performances, but its either his directing that needs to step up or the script, and this time around, I think the script was solid.
On second thought, perhaps that's not the best way to open up a review. Oh well, sod it - it's what was on my mind exiting the theater and kept reoccurring as I walked home in this actually rather pleasant weather [there's some fog and a little rain, but overall, pretty relaxing]. Let me preface by saying that next to Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon was the one other Oscar-nominated movie I actually had a real interest in. I'm well aware there's a great majority who thinks Frost/Nixon excels in its most important department - namely, the conversation pieces between our title characters - and that's all fine and dandy; I understand where most everyone's able to get the vibe from the scenes, truly. I just happened to not.
It's 1977, three years after the whole Watergate debacle and resigning the Presidency, Richard Nixon (Langella) living life comfortably in a nice beach house in California - y'know, the tough life after being involved in a scandal. Meanwhile, British TV host David Frost (Sheen) is feelin' the need for his "big break", 'cuz his reality show and other programs aren't the juicy stuff he needs. Thus, he gets a brilliant concept - interview the disgraced ex-President himself, Richard Nixon! It's a genius and simultaneously proposterious idea as Frost approaches this from a stand-point of playfulness, not grasping the full weight of this interview despite the persistant pesterings of his colleagues. Nixon's camp is looking at this as a win-win situation: they grab a few thousand from this poor British bastard, and hopefully, in the course of this interview, not only set the record straight but sway America back in his favor. Once the camera rolls, Frosts' original idea of giving this man the "trial he never had" (a common phrase repeated throughout the movie) drifts further and further away as he witnesses first-hand this man's amazing ability to yabber on his way out of any question. But Frost, being the ever determined bloke he is, keeps un hammering Nixon, hoping for a crack of his iron-clad shield. And to raise enough money to pay everyone off; there's that, too.
Now, my experience of watching President Nixon probably accumulates of 76 seconds of my life, so I can't adequately judge Frank Langella's portrayal of the late US leader, but for what it's worth, by the film's end, Langella was, simply, President Nixon. (Side note: as a sort of extension of the previous statement, I just wish to comment that you actually don't need to have much knowledge about US history, and you'll be fine; in fact, you just need to see a particular 26-second scene from Forrest Gump, and you're set) He inhabits him whole-heartedly, never coming across as a actor, but the man himself! It's a truly awesome performance. From his bizarre comments about Frosts' shoe choice, to his offhand inquiry if any fornication was going on the night before with his girl (Hall), right down to him getting his stories straight in his head, it's all quite interesting and brilliantly played. Apparently both Langella and Sheen are reprising their stage roles, and I wager they took this translation to full effect - finally, a medium that enables them to portray their character's subtleties and nuances in the full, and it's obvious they had a field day with it. There's even moments where you begin to feel a bit of pity for the man.
Michael Sheen as Frost is, for lack of a better Yale-sounding word, perfect. Although his wide-eyes and eyebrows makes me recall the freaky eye-liner wearing governor from The Dark Knight - which can be a distraction - I find his performance to be outstanding, and as many other commentators noted, he not only reaches the awesome levels of Langella, but they also feed off each others' performance, only helping escalate their own to astounding heights. It's amazing watching this cocky character walk into a meeting with Nixon, not having a clue what he's in for, and suddenly feel like a fish out of a bowl - way over his head and drowning. Sheen's also gifted with that Bruce Wayne/Playboy ability, making it perfectly in the relam of probability that his suave and charm could sway women from anywhere, and perhaps even Nixon (although failing as swaying network heads, suckily enough). Once his ego is hit hard by Nixon's dodgy double speak, Frost tries to better himself and invest as much of himself into this project as much as possible. His "turning point" is actually quite interesting to watch. Perhaps the most engaging plotline with Frost is his continued search for TV broadcasting companies willing to finance the project. Amazing performance, watered down only by his freaky wide-eyes...they frightened me.
A nearly unrecognizable Kevin Bacon plays Nixon's chief of staff who has his best interest at heart, always looking out for the old man and ensuring there's no word slippage or anything of the sort. It's strange hearing the guy speak so normal when I'm used to the dude talk like a cowboy-wannabe from Tremors. Bacon's character is pretty much the guy who has been burdened with the task of carrying Nixon's burden, and whether he believes in Nixon isn't fully established, but it's obvious he cares about the disgraced ex-Prez. Overall, a very nice performance that sorta makes me want to see Death Sentence now. And the lovely Rebbecca Hall, who stunned me with her gorgeousness in Woody Allen's way over-praised Vicky Christina Barcelona, walks in-between scenes to show off a new outfit and care for our man Frost. It's unfortunate she's not given any heavy material to work with, because she's quite talented.
And here we come to perhaps the most important aspect of Frost/Nixon, and the deciding factor whether or not this movie succeeds or fails: director Ron Howard. At the very beginning of this review, I gave a brief two cents worth on the man, saying I respect the dude, but his flicks occasionally bore me, and this is no different. First I want to bring up his choice of style in this film: there's a heavy amount of hand-held camerawork, which, if you didn't pay attention to the credits, would probably lead you to believe Paul Greengrass (United 93) had his hands in the making of this picture. I love this style, but it's not entirely the best film to utilize such a technique - it's uncalled for when it's actually done, and the times where I thought the film would benefit from it, it sticks to the standard smooth, slick steady shot (woah: five 's' words in a row! coolz). Obviously, I'm not a filmmaker, so take my words with little interest, it's just that I'd do it differently. Howard also utilizes "interview footage" with the people involved in the interviews giving their retrospective takes on everything. Really, it's just there to build some excitment in an otherwise flat film. It's a dumb mechanism that I've never appreciated in a film before, and this one didn't sway me in the other direction, either. Again, I gotta reiterate: I didn't dislike Frost/Nixon, there's just a heavy need for directorial improvement, or, perhaps, choppier editing.
Music is nearly entirely absent from this motion picture, and whenever it is used, it's never to any great effect. Concerning the all-important Frost/Nixon conversation sequences which essentially make or break the movie, I think some form of dark, deep and lingering beat should have been used to create some form of drama or suspense - instead, we're left with nada. Since the gravity of the situation isn't felt adequately enough, the lack of a score doesn't help sustain our attention span.
Frost/Nixon is a all-around good movie, boasting some phenomenal performances that deserve some type of showcase, and a tight, provocative script. Maybe under the hands of someone else, the severe lack of tension and excitement would be handled better, but as it stands, it's serviceable. Out of all the nominated flicks that aren't Slumdog Millionaire or The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon is the next best thing. I highly recommend it, and any problems that I may have with it may not necessarily be shared by everyone else (as it so seems), so it's definitely a film that you should check out when it hits retail shelves. If nothing else, it will peak your interest enough to seek out the original interviews or find out a bit more on what happened, so that's a pretty nice thing, isn't it?