Monday 28 December 2020

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

A drama and character study, Frost/Nixon explores a battle of wits between a television personality and a disgraced politician. The duel provides a surprisingly potent foundation for a captivating narrative.

After President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigns in 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal, British celebrity talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) audaciously requests an interview. With Nixon now decamped to a California villa with an entourage of loyalists, his publicist Irving "Swifty" Lazar (Toby Jones) eventually agrees to the interview request in exchange for $600,000.

In preparation for the four two-hour taped sessions, Frost convenes a team of advisors including producer John Birt (Matthew Macfayden) and reporters/researchers Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston (Sam Rockwell). But to Frost's surprise the major television networks pass on the opportunity to buy the rights to air the interview, forcing him to front all the expenses and in a scramble to find sponsors. The tapings start in 1977, with Nixon confident he can bat away any controversial questions and Frost eager to extract an acknowledgement of wrong doing from the disgraced former President.

Peter Morgan adapts his stage play for the big screen and succeeds at the arduous task of transforming a political interview featuring two egotistical characters into accessible drama. Without fully overcoming the suspicion of overblown importance, director Ron Howard squeezes tension from the quest to seek something resembling an apology, or maybe just a moment of human vulnerability, from the reviled figure of Richard Nixon. The drama works thanks in large part to Frank Langella draping the Nixon persona over his broad shoulders and projecting a fascinating combination of arrogance, denial and smarts.

Howard stages the interview preparations as the equivalent of two boxers training for a championship bout. Advisors, sparring sessions, commercial terms, sponsors, personalty analyses and likely points of attack and defence are charted and debated, occupying the film's first two thirds. Concurrently the two personalities are fleshed out, Frost inexperienced as a hard-nosed interviewer but with a megawatt smile and enough charm to light-up a studio, Nixon a wounded giant of a man still believing himself the smartest person in a room full of enablers, and yet to fully come to terms with his legacy.

Once the interviews start, the bout appears to be a mismatch. Drawing on decades of experience Nixon unsettles his inquisitor and turns every answer into a self-serving monologue, Frost unable to interject and pinned deep into his chair by the former President's oratory barrage. The success or failure of Frost's attempt to create compelling television hinges on the fourth and final two-hour interview session centred on Watergate, and the showman realizes it really is show time, only this time he has to work for it.

The outcome is a combination of history and dramatic licence, Howard and Langella doing enough to register a moment in television history entrenching the medium's power and potential.

In addition to Matthew Macfayden, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, the cast also includes Kevin Bacon as Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan and Rebecca Hall as Frost's girlfriend Caroline. The supporting actors are all suitably lively but rarely venture beyond basic characterizations.

The production exudes quality and courage in tackling cerebral subject matter with complex protagonists. The topics are history and politics, but Frost/Nixon is intrinsically all about pushing risks to the point of career-defining success or spectacular failure.

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