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Frost/Nixon

dir: Ron Howard
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I’m not old enough to have really cared about the horrors of life under Nixon, or about Nam, Agent Orange or the Bee Gees when they were all at their peak evilness. So I’m not old enough to have watched or known about the ‘famous’ interviews that served as the basis of the ‘famous’ play that this ‘famous’ film is based on. I am old enough, on the other hand, to know who Nixon was, and to marvel at the way the old rascal still permeates the Western pop cultural consciousness, even in death, even to this day.

In fact you could argue that he’s even more prominent now than prior to his death. You have to wonder why. No president of the last hundred years has been as endlessly quoted, maligned, parodied, written about or portrayed in films and tv shows as Richard Milhous Nixon. Well, Kennedy, maybe, but he’s the other side of the coin.

And next to no-one should know who David Frost is/was. If this film is to be believed, ably directed by the guy who played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, then their interview together wasn’t solely the single most important interview in the history of interviews, it was the only trial and conviction Nixon was ever going to receive for his crimes against the world in general and the American people specifically.

This, being a Ron Howard film, has no time or place for subtlety in its shameless apple-shining and grade-grubbing pandering for Oscars. So a character (James Reston, played by Sam Rockwell) has to explicitly state for the stupid audience’s benefit, who couldn’t work out for themselves that making a film about the interviews themselves meant it was important enough. He has to huffily point out, during the preparations for the interviews, that this is the trial Nixon deserves for having threatened the very institutions that underpin the American way of life.

But even he, with all his convictions, can’t bring himself not to shake the man’s hand.

Wow, so this must be a really important film, huh? Viewers (and, more importantly, Academy voters) would have to be retarded to not vote for this flick in all the crucial ego-reach-around categories, eh?

I don’t buy it, neither completely nor partially, but I understand how it must have seemed at the time, how it warrants a play and a film about it, but I don’t for a single cotton-picking minute believe that they really ‘got’ Nixon in the way they hoped, that it finally punished the fucker for all his malfeasance, or that it saved republican democracy for the ages. It is fascinating and entertaining, all the same, but that’s because of the quality of the performances and the shadow over the present that Nixon still casts.

Frank Langella has been dining out on his Nixon impression for decades. He’s been assaying the stage role for so long that he seems almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I feel that it goes beyond caricature or doing an impression of the man, to the degree that seems to be physically embodying the crazy old coot. The script, forgiving it as I do for some of its clunkers, works best when it gives Langella the juicy material that sounds like recordings of stuff Nixon himself actually would say. He carries the terribly fun burden well across his stooped shoulders of playing this unique, deeply paranoid, scarily intelligent and purely evil character. What fun it must be to play one of history’s greatest villains so well.
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He looks like he relishes every nanosecond of every jowly word and sweaty gesture. It’s easy to believe that such a Nixon would have relished as well as been wary of taking on a lightweight like David Frost.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is portrayed as what he is/was: a vainglorious fame-whore who saw the whole fiasco more as an opportunity to break through popularity-wise in America, rather than eliciting the confessions of a fallen tyrant or finally getting justice for all. He sees this as his chance to be New York successful, as opposed to Britain/Australia successful, which he speaks about to his producer as if it’s the best sex he’s ever had mixed with the best cookies he can remember from his childhood.

Frost hopes to raise his profile and get people to take him seriously: Nixon wants to tell his side of the story in order to rehabilitate his image and potentially see his political star rise in the east again. Both absurd propositions, but there you go. That Nixon thought (he also received a hefty $600,000 incentive to take part in the interviews as well) he could ever have expected to get back into the game is ridiculous. Where do you go in American politics after being an impeached president? But Nixon was a lot of things, including both deeply paranoid and self-deluded, so anything’s possible. Fuck it, he was crazy as a shithouse rat, as the phrase goes, and this would have been around the peak of his feelings of persecution and like the forces of goodness were circling ominously above himself and his legacy like noble vultures.

When Frost is trying to organise the event, after having watched Nixon’s resignation on the television, and finding out that 400 million worldwide viewers viewed Nixon grunting out his resignation with no admission at all of wrongdoing, he cares less about the details and more about how he’s going to look doing it. The people working with him to prepare the groundwork, the format and the questions (Oliver Platt, who himself gives an excellent Nixon impression, Sam Rockwell and Matthew McFadyen) treat the interviews less as a media event and more like a streaker sprinting through a minefield. They fear getting this wrong will doom them for life in the eyes of the world.

Melodramatic and arrogant, I know, but it goes a long way to setting up the context in which this happened, and perhaps giving some reasons for as to why this occasion was an important one. They devote nearly an hour of the film to the set-up, which sounds like a lot, but if you look at this as a Rocky film, well this is the training, the lead up to the big event, with the underdog and the arrogant champion destined to meet in mortal combat.

When they first meet, Nixon, known to have been a socially awkward and dour man, is witty and avuncular, charming even, until the moment where he shakes Frost’s hand and fixes his eye on him, trying to take his measure. “Make no mistake, this will be a duel.”

Beautiful moment. The look in Langella’s Nixonian eye is without price. Just one of the several majestic moments peppered throughout a very strong, entirely fictionalised and historically soapie film. I was sold on it before they even got to the main event.

The real difference is, and it seems perverse to say this (despite all the other dramatic embellishments they make to the story, including a highly unlikely drunken midnight phonecall where Nixon’s rage at the snubs of the privileged gets full focus), when it gets to the main event, it’s anticlimactic. Profoundly so. With all the subtle and not-so-subtle references to boxing being made in the manner in which the interviews are conducted, when the bell rings and they come out swinging, Nixon is shadowboxing in an exemplary manner, with Frost standing frozen in his corner, smiling sweetly and desperately hoping not to get hit.

When Frost’s handlers see that Nixon is completely in control of the battleground, they keep urging him to get into the fight. But the important issue is, for most of the time, Frost never really shares their desire to get the supreme gotcha moment. Reston and the rest keep screaming at him to go for the jugular, but Frost isn’t a journalist. Frost is also, apart from constantly smiling sweetly or flashing that shit-eating grin, intimated and thrown off his stride by the supreme confidence Nixon exudes, down to the petty little psych outs Nixon sends his way that throw him completely for a loop.

When Frost is goaded into attacking, it’s as amateurish and ham-fisted as you’d expect, with him bringing up Cambodia, and playing a pointless montage on a screen as if that alone was going to get Nixon to admit fault in attacking those poor people. From there things look dismal in terms of realising the objectives of Frost’s crew, but he seems content just to get the interview with the ‘great’ man, and, in his own words, doesn’t share their “cynicism”. He can’t and won’t engage him or even try to contradict him that much, fearing as he does that Nixon could just walk away if he attacks.

Frost’s insecurity is certainly being embellished here, but the film goes to great lengths to represent just how much Frost had at stake here, personally and professionally, despite and perhaps because of his inadequacies for the job. It’s as if he’d decided to stake his career on being a bullfighter for a day in order to make a name for himself, despite never having so much as swatted a fly. Even his own ego’s dictates and the anger/ridicule of his crew doesn’t spur him on. In the end his tremendous “you can’t handle the truth” moment is as unbelievable for us as it is for him.

Before the final day of filming, it seems to be Nixon himself who dares or compels Frost to take a stand and decide whether he’s content to come out of this fiasco as the clear lesser man, or whether he’s going to step up and go for the title. As Nixon says, the “winner” gets the limelight again, the “loser” gets obscurity: the limelight doesn’t have space for both men.

I have to applaud Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan for not overplaying the actual interviews, and for not changing the dynamic that actually existed throughout most of them. Of course it all hinges on the final interview, where Nixon made concessions and admissions that are staggering to this day (depending on how you interpret them), but those final moments of the interview shows something truly extraordinary. How one man back in ’77 was able, after a lifetime of duplicity and demented rage against a world he despised and craved the acceptance of, was able to show so many emotions on his face at one time was amazing: self-loathing, shame, anger, regret, defensiveness, wounded vulnerability and probably fifteen more. How one man in 2008 was able to do that moment full credit is equally astounding.

Langella is saying the words, those fateful words in that final interview, but it’s the face, that extraordinary face playing through a complex symphony of emotions that is really the film’s triumph. It is an amazing performance, and it immediately surpasses history, surpasses imitation and dramatic recreation, and becomes something so much more powerful. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that face.

It all plays out as you might expect afterwards, but even their last scene together, a polite farewell of sorts, has incredible strengths, with Nixon referring to the fact that the both of them have completely different personalities, and perhaps could have done better having swapped careers, since Nixon himself could never like or chat with people socially, yet strove for a life in politics, something which he was ill-suited to.

Did it happen? Does it matter, is a more important point, and it certainly does. Frost greets this moment like he greets most of his moments with Nixon: with a mixture of awe and obsequious charm. Let’s face it, it’s Nixon’s film, Langella’s film, but Michael Sheen does extremely well with such a part, reigning it in when temptation could have been to let him act like he was the horrible hybrid of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men. If it’s a less compelling portrayal than Nixon’s, well, hell, it is Nixon after all. To many he was a great villain, to some he was a great statesman, but there’s no doubting that there was something great about him, even if it was only his flaws. No other president inspires as much loathing or curious respect, and even further it is a marvel to see that perversely, films about his monstrous and wounded ego more often than not end up humanising the monster even further.

I enjoyed Frost / Nixon a tremendous amount, though I am fully aware that the audience for such a flick is limited. Extremely limited, as in it seems to have been put together exclusively for chin-stroking historical dilettantes, history nerds and history teachers looking to bore future generations of apathetic teenagers with such lofty materials. It doesn't detract from what was truly a fascinating and compelling fictionalisation of a real event; one that perhaps doesn't have the global significance or end result (the final captions preceding the credits notwithstanding, in that there’s no doubt it played a part in rehabilitating his image, and they leave out the fact that Nixon got a cut of the money Frost got from selling the interviews to the networks) that the film’s makers might contend. The fact still remains that the performances are tremendous, and it’s a very interesting story told well.

Which is all I want. It’s not too much to ask, is it?

9 times at night Nixon’s going to break into people’s house and wreck up the place out of 10

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“That Jack Kennedy, he screwed anything that moved. He had a go at Checkers once, and that poor bitch was never the same after that.” – Frost / Nixon