‘Frost/Nixon’ leaps hurdles to become high drama
Aspen Times Weekly
In 1977 came a potentially historic moment in American political history. Richard Nixon, disgraced, pardoned and isolated but hardly forgotten, agreed to a TV interview. There was the distinct possibility that the former president would finally confess to his Watergate activities. Or if not confess, then squirm and sweat as he denied and obfuscated ” which would be just as good, and maybe even more entertaining.
“Frost/Nixon” makes little effort to tell this episode as history or politics. The director is Ron Howard and anyone looking to Opie/Richie Cunningham ” or the director of the scandalously overrated, factually distorted “A Beautiful Mind” ” for historical insight is in trouble to begin with. So let’s dispense with the notion that the film is a significant civics lesson. For that, you’re better off tuning into “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Seriously.
“Frost/Nixon” is an entertainment through and through and through. And it is an astonishingly good one that easily leaps over several monstrous handicaps. The film is adapted from a stage play, a transfer that is always fraught with dramatic challenges. The action, as it were, is divided up between the interviews themselves and the negotiations leading up to them. No one is going to be pulled into a theater by the prospect of a recreated interview ” and the idea of building a film around backstage negotiations is only slightly more promising. Nixon is a loathsome creature; we’ve already seen one failed ex-president on the big screen in recent months, and that didn’t play out well, either artistically or commercially. As for David Frost ” I recall the name vaguely, and I’ve never had the urge to find out more about him.
Somehow, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan ” who also wrote the stage play ” make this into compelling, high drama. It’s not going too far to see shades of Shakespeare in the methodical manipulations undertaken by both the Frost and Nixon camps, or in the overt complexity of the two characters. As portrayed by Michael Sheen, Frost is a lightweight playboy TV personality who gets in over his head financially and intellectually. Frank Langella gives Nixon the caginess and paranoia we always associate with him, but also a smoothness and presence we do not.
It is tempting to say that “Frost/Nixon” is saved by the performances, especially Langella’s. The actor, coming into his own in his 70s, does an otherworldly job here. Despite being tall, dignified and handsome, he manages to capture Nixon’s oily physical essence. Along with the feat of impersonation, however, Langella also creates a character, a Nixon of his own who is more well-rounded than the one who lives on in public memory. And there is more on the actor’s plate: Langella drives the narrative to points of tension and confrontation that you would not have imagined possible. Not in a Ron Howard film, anyway. Langella won my vote for best actor.
Sheen plays second fiddle here, and does it well. Also noteworthy is Kevin Bacon as a former military man, now Nixon’s primary handler and still in military mode as he attempts to control the proceedings. Few actors do controlling and sleazy as well as Bacon, and he has put himself in the running to be the next actor to play Nixon himself.
But the acting is only one of several elements at work. Focusing mostly on the run-up to the interviews, and the in-the-moment chess moves as the interviews are being conducted, Howard drives the story to breathless moments as the depths of pride and self-delusion are revealed.
So does Nixon confess to his dirty deeds? Sort of. And honestly, I sort of forget that aspect of the film. I wasn’t getting a history lesson. I was watching a movie.
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An inspirational piece of 20th century artist Herbert Bayer is being installed on the staircase next to Aspen City Hall by his granddaughter, Koko.