Jan 24, 2009

Frost/Nixon [15]

Dir: Ron Howard
Frost/Nixon is an odd fit for the cinema, a story about television, based on a play, the movies wouldn’t seem to be its natural home. However, under the unobtrusive direction of Ron Howard, the story makes a surprisingly natural transition to the big screen. The story is that of a series of interviews with disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) conducted by British talk show host and comedy performer David Frost (Michael Sheen). Writer Peter Morgan (who also scripted The Queen) fictionalises the build up to the interviews, and the relationships between the major players on both sides.

As the title implies much of Frost/Nixon rests on the shoulders of its stars. Langella is picking up most of the accolades, including an Oscar nomination, for his Nixon. He looks nothing like tricky Dick, but the gruff voice, and the demeanor of the man, come across brilliantly. Where Langella really excels, particularly given how often Nixon has been portrayed on screen before, is in giving more than just an impersonation of the man, more than a caricature, he manages to make Nixon human, even to make him sympathetic at times, giving a fresh perspective on a man about whom much has been said.

Michael Sheen doesn’t, sadly, come off as well. Sheen has made playing real-life characters something of a stock in trade. He’s done an uncanny Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams and is appearing as Brian Clough soon. Frost seems a bit undefined. He gets the impersonation down in the first few scenes, but then he lets it slide, and ends up slipping into his Blair for a lot of the film, with the notable exception of the last interview, in which the Frost impression returns to full force. The problem is that, unlike with Langella, I could never really shake the feeling that, however good he is technically, what I was watching was Michael Sheen doing impressions.

There is a similar mix among the supporting performances. Former Spooks star Matthew MacFadyen lets his wig do most of the work for him as John Birt, and the talented Rebecca Hall is largely reduced to sitting next to Sheen and looking pretty, while Oliver Platt does his patented comic relief part as well as ever. There are standouts though; Kevin Bacon is excellent as Nixon’s closest aide, particularly in a conversation with Sheen just before the first interview session, Sam Rockwell makes more of his part as a researcher than was likely on the page and Toby Jones, in just a handful of scenes as Nixon’s agent ‘Swifty’ Lazar, very nearly steals the film out from under Langella’s nose.

Stylistically Ron Howard indulges in few flourishes, the use of ‘documentary’ footage of some of the leading players is odd and out of place, and it feels truncated, as if there is an abandoned framing device sitting on the cutting room floor but otherwise his major choice is to make extensive use of tight close ups in the interview sequences, the one thing that theatre can’t do, and a decision that really hammers home what the film is really about; the power of television.

Frost/Nixon is certainly talky, but it’s never dull, screenwriter Peter Morgan combines fact and fiction literately, putting believable dialogue into the mouths of all of his characters, even when some, like Hall’s are left a touch underdeveloped. The major problem with the film is that not all of the performances come up to the high mark set by some of the cast, but the film is still worth checking out, especially if you have an interest in the era, or in politics in general.

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