Thursday, March 05, 2009

'Frost/Nixon' a rich character study

“Frost/Nixon” is a fascinating look at the infamous multi-day televised interview between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon, but the film is more about the lead up to the interview than the event itself.

The film is closest in spirit to George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” which also recreated a famous television event. As with Clooney’s film, “Frost/Nixon” is more then mere recreation. While we do get reenactments of the interview toward the end of the film they don’t take up the majority of the running time.

Director Ron Howard’s film and Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) screenplay adapted from his play is a behind-the-scenes look at the research process of Frost’s writing team as well as a character study of the title figures. By the time the film gets to the interview there’s a clear understanding of what is at stake.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) both reprise their roles from the play. It is clear that both actors, having played the characters nightly on stage, are quite comfortable playing these men. Langella won a Tony award for his stage portrayal of Nixon and it's easy to see why.

Nixon has been portrayed by many great actors from Anthony Hopkins to Rip Torn to Dan Hedaya. What makes Langella’s Nixon stand out is that there’s a sense that he’s captured the essence of the man. This is more than just impersonation.

Some may be upset that the portrayal of Nixon here is a sympathetic one. Morgan and Howard are hardly condoning his actions, but merely reminding that he was a human, perhaps a tragically flawed one, but a human none the less.

As portrayed by Langella, Nixon is even sort of likable. As a viewer you certainly don’t agree with the illegal actions he took as president, but the film does a good job of painting a portrait of the man that made them.

The film is just as much about Frost as it is Nixon and Sheen does an excellent job at playing Frost as a man who has ambitions beyond his station in life. His public persona was that of a shallow playboy and he wasn’t taken serious when he under took the Nixon interviews endeavor. Sheen adds subtle layers to his characterization and makes Frost’s struggle to be taken seriously worth watching.

The two leads have an excellent supporting cast behind them. Oliver Platt (“Pieces of April”), Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of Dangerous Mind”) and Matthew Macfadyen (“Pride and Prejudice”) are wonderful as Frost’s writing team. The three actors have a great chemistry together and their scenes with Sheen are some of the most interesting in the film as you see the process behind the interviews.

Kevin Bacon plays Nixon right hand man who can’t stand the way “liberals” are so disrespectful to the former president. It is the kind of solid, non-flashy performance we’ve come to expect from Bacon.

Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) has the thankless role of Frost’s girlfriend, but even she gets to shine in a couple scenes. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she makes it count and offers further evidence that she is an actress to watch. Her flirtatious first encounter with Frost is well written and played.

The film takes some dramatic license for the sake of making the film more entertaining. Each day of the interview had a specific subject matter and the order of these was altered for the film to have Nixon's apology during the Watergate interview be the climatic final interview. It certainly is more dramatically satisfying that way and this is ultimately an entertainment not a documentary.

A scene of complete fiction features a drunken Nixon calling Frost in the middle of the night before the night of the Watergate interview. The scene is perhaps the most compelling in the film as Langella’s Nixon discusses how he and Frost aren’t really that different. More so than in any other scene, Langella is completely riveting.

For a generation of people who actually lived through this and might be thinking “I was there I don’t need to see this” you’d be wrong. This is rich and enthralling look at two men and the historic moment that brought them together.

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