Friday, January 02, 2009

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

This afternoon I attended a showing of Ron Howard's latest flick, Frost/Nixon. It's the story of the historic interviews British journalist David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977, three years after the former president had been forced to resign from office due to his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. The movie is based on a play of the same name by playwright Peter Morgan.

I really didn't know what to expect, going in to this flick. It seemed a rather ambitious project for Ron Howard, given the subject matter. After all, aside from political junkies (like me) who is really going to get excited about seeing a movie about a 30 year old scandal?

But Ron Howard, in a pre-release interview with Public Radio International hinted at his motive with this quote:
I was surprised when I read the play, how riveting and entertaining this piece was. The interviews had meant a lot to me in 1977 -- I'd been one of those 400 million people around the world ... really watching and caring, and the outcome mattered a lot to me. But I had no idea [what] all the behind-the-scenes machinations meant, and what Peter Morgan discovered was [a] rich drama that was full of suspense, and humor and emotion, along with recreating this remarkable event. -Ron Howard
The key phrase in this quote is "the outcome mattered a lot to me." I've heard Howard in other recent interviews and it is apparent that he, like many others in this country, is plainly frustrated and outraged that the Bush administration has not been held accountable for its many obvious abuses of power. So, Frost/Nixon has a temporal urgency. I believe that Howard is giving expression to the sentiments of literally millions of Americans who believe that the Bush administration must be made to answer for its crimes.

But apart from its political statement, as Howard says in his quote, the film also provides an interesting peek into the world of power journalism. There is a lot of negotiation, a lot of salesmanship, and a lot of legal maneuvering.

The film centers on David Frost and his team, first as they prepare for the interview, then as they engage the Nixon team in the verbal fencing match. Frost and his team are hoping to get an admission or a confession from Nixon. Nixon, on the other hand, is looking to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of the public.

Michael Sheen plays David Frost in a respectable performance. Kevin Bacon gives a good performance as Nixon's hard-boiled and intensely loyal chief of staff, Jack Brennan. And I especially liked Sam Rockwell's protrayal of the angry James Reston, probably because I could identify with the seething anger Reston had at what he deemed to be the injustice of Nixon escaping accountability.

But the standout performance is, of course, Frank Langella playing Nixon. Given that the story is based on actual historical events, it's no spoiler to divulge here that Frost succeeds in getting a tacit admission of culpability. (Hell, the trailer reveals as much.) The pleasure is in watching Langella masterfully portray Nixon as a man in transition: going from a cagey, scheming power player at the beginning of the story, to a defeated, slightly befuddled old man at the end.

If you do decide to see this film, be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the Watergate scandal. As my friend, Andre Danielson, pointed out, if viewers aren't familiar with names like Charles Colson, John Dean, Ehrlichman or Haldeman, it will be hard to follow the story.

All in all, I found the film worthwhile. It makes an important statement as our nation puts the Bush nightmare behind it. However, I'm afraid the film will be of limited interest to those not obsessed with politics.

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