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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Frost/Nixon (Blu-ray)
Frost/Nixon (Blu-ray)
Universal // R // April 21, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 19, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Two years
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had passed since Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) resigned from the presidency of the United States, marking the first time in the nation's two hundred year history that her highest office had been abandoned. Still stinging from the betrayal of Watergate and its subsequent coverup, a nation was seething at Nixon's unconditional pardon as Vice President Ford took the mantle. The disgraced former president had spent the past couple of years in near-exile at his California estate, refusing to acknowledge Watergate and instead whiling away his days shopping for a book deal. He'd hoped to redeem himself in the public eye by publishing his memoirs; at the very least, this would give Nixon a chance to tell his side of the story and collect a hefty paycheck -- something the American television networks were refusing to consider -- at the same time.

Enter David Frost (Michael Sheen). The immensely popular British television personality had a strong foothold on the world at large but hadn't managed to maintain any sort of meaningful presence on our shores. Dazzled by the four hundred million viewers that Nixon's farewell speech had attracted across the globe, it was impossible for Frost to ignore an opportunity to achieve the success in America that he'd craved for so long. ABC, NBC, and CBS may have turned their heads at the thought of paying Nixon for an interview, but Frost couldn't have been more eager to pull out his checkbook. It was a long and arduous process -- first to get Nixon to acknowledge the request, then to hammer out a long and intricate contract detailing the minutiae of what could be asked and when -- but the most difficult stretch was yet to come. Nixon's camp shrugged Frost off as a lightweight...an entertainer rather than a proper journalist...and they wholly expected to steamroll over him, at long last conquering the medium of television that Nixon believed had cost him the election against John F. Kennedy a decade and a half earlier. Eager to prove himself, Frost assembled his own dogged staff of researchers (Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt), but it looked to be a hopelessly lopsided fight: a brilliant, seasoned politician squaring off against a TV personality distracted by financing headaches and his own galavanting. Despite Frost's stumbling in the early rounds, at least as it's depicted here, history shows how he rose to the occasion.

Ron Howard
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likens these twelve interview sessions to a boxing match -- familiar territory for the director behind Cinderella Man -- and to a point, Frost/Nixon does follow the arc of a sports movie: the outmatched, outclassed underdog pitted against a thundering tyrant putting the gloves on again after years of retirement. As tapes are being changed, the cornermen rush to their fighters, icing their cuts and belting out what strategy to unleash when the bell rings once again. The most compelling aspect of Frost/Nixon aren't these verbal sparring matches, though; the first of the interviews doesn't even take place until halfway through the film. No, what's so instantly engaging about this movie, more than any of Ron Howard's work to date, is how richly layered and textured these characters are. Frost/Nixon is, at its core, a character study. David Frost is gambling a lifetime in television on this venture, desperate to prove himself as more than just a catchphrase and a gleaming smile. Nixon, the elder statesman, is haunted by his own deep-rooted insecurities. Nixon's innumerable accomplishments had long been overwhelmed by his profound self-loathing, and his fall -- wholly undeserved, in his eyes -- was a shadow he couldn't bear to continue to have looming over him for the rest of his life.

A lesser film would've taken the easy way out. There are no inspirational speeches that rally Frost -- just frustrated outbursts barely in earshot and his own shaky confidence -- and Frost/Nixon doesn't bother with long, rambling monologues. Nixon isn't a cariacture: all jowls, clumsy impressions, and actorly tics. No, Frost/Nixon is, in all respects, a masterfully crafted film, and it benefits immensely from having the two leads from the stage play taking the reins. Frank Langella doesn't particularly look or sound like Richard Nixon, but the complex man rendered through his performance is so enthralling that the lack of resemblance is inconsequential. Despite the appalling and unforgivable mistakes he'd made in office, Nixon is still deeply sympathetic: the unspoken sadness in his eyes, the former president's jagged stabs at charming a constituency he no longer has...at trying to connect to a world he never feels that he can truly be a part of. At the same time, his odder habits -- an almost chronic obsession with money in particular -- keep him that much further out of reach. Despite its subject matter, Frost/Nixon isn't a political film and doesn't seek to demonize Nixon or hold him up as unduly scorned. There is no hero or villain. It's that complexity -- that humanity -- that defines the film. Though
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Langella's is inherently by far the standout performance, Michael Sheen's take on David Frost is remarkably impressive in its own right. Despite flailing his arms about in the choppy seas, Frost refuses to sink and never succumbs to the doubts that remain unspoken.

This is Ron Howard's most accomplished work to date, and it's difficult to ignore the similarities between Howard and his film's take on David Frost. Both men are immensely popular entertainers but have been largely dismissed critically, and the Frost/Nixon interviews mark an opportunity to definitively prove themselves. Like Frost himself, Howard rises to the challenge. A director known for sweeping, ornate gestures instead shapes a film that's more subtle in its craftsmanship. This is a movie driven by performances and dialogue rather than a high-concept plot or nine-figure production values. So many of Howard's films have struck me as deliberately calculated down to the smallest detail, but he eases up on the reins in Frost/Nixon, never leaving me feeling as if I were being manipulatively prodded along to a certain emotion or response. Howard notes throughout the extras on this Blu-ray how he populated the cast with character actors skilled at improvisation, and even with as sharply written as so much of Peter Morgan's dialogue is, the juxtaposition of the two makes it all feel so much more believable and organic. The performances across the board are absolutely mesmerizing, and Frost/Nixon deftly weaves a sharp wit and humor into its tapestry. Even with as well-known as the interviews' historic outcome would prove to be, this is a film that's unrelentingly tense and suspenseful throughout, achieving this purely on the merits of two warring camps competing for stakes they can't afford to lose rather than through stale genre theatrics.

Equal parts entertaining and engrossing, masterfully acted, and exceptionally well-written, Frost/Nixon is one of the most extraordinary films of 2008, and Universal has seen fit to lavish it with a similarly exceptional release on Blu-ray.


Video
I frequently found myself startled by just how crisp and immaculately detailed Frost/Nixon is on Blu-ray. The additional resolution that high definition has to offer showcases the strength of the film's production and costume design, wonderfully reproducing an era decades in the past without drawing undue attention to itself. Facial and clothing textures are remarkably strong, as are the silky smooth gradients between light and shadow. The thin veil of film grain visible throughout much of Frost/Nixon is accurately preserved, and the stylized texture of its documentary-style inserts is tightly rendered and further fleshes out that sense of verisimilitude. Its frequently striking colors veer away from the clichés that generally spring to mind with a period piece set against the backdrop of the 1970s, from the bold hues of the film's sunny exteriors to the warm, golden glow cast as light streams in through curtains. Blu-ray may often be thought of as a format to showcase lavish CG effects and colossal pyrotechnics, but Frost/Nixon once again proves that even a comparatively subdued film can still look stunning in high definition.

Frost/Nixon is presented on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and its VC-1 encode is spread across both layers of this BD-50 disc.

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Audio
Frost/Nixon is a film that, needless to say, is intensely driven by its dialogue, and the nature of the material doesn't lend itself to aggressive split-surrounds or a thunderous low-end. This DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack suits the film marvelously, though. Anchored in the center channel, its dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, and even the most incendiary line readings aren't marred by a flicker of clipping or distortion. There's a fair amount of color in the surrounds, and dynamic range is robust when called for, particularly the throaty growl of Nixon's motorcade. Its sound design is inherently understated, but Frost/Nixon boasts a very effective lossless soundtrack that complements the film without any qualms or concerns.

Lossy DTS 5.1 dubs are offered in Spanish and French. The list of subtitles includes streams in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.


Extras
  • Deleted Scenes (30 min.): Among Frost/Nixon's
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    greatest strengths is its adeptness in layering its characters with so much texture, and its half-hour of deleted scenes do a remarkable job of fleshing them out that much further. This lengthy reel includes a more intense and intimate look at the leadup to Nixon's resignation speech, a fully edited version of Frost watching the President's farewell speech alongside a take shot on video, an extended version of Frost reconnecting with producer John Birt, a lengthier research montage, literary agent Swifty Lazar bickering with Nixon about wanting to hold onto a $200,000 check, the assassination attempts on Ford's life that better inform one scene that did make it into the film, and an even more scathing encounter between Frost and his researchers. Frost/Nixon still plays wonderfully without all of this additional footage, but so much of it is compelling that I'm glad to see it on this Blu-ray disc in one form or another. This half-hour reel of deleted scenes is the only standard definition extra on the disc, by the way.

  • Discovering Secrets: The People and Places Behind the Story (13 min.; HD): "Discovering Secrets" opens by interviewing the likes of Sir David Frost himself and the Smith family who hosted these interviews decades ago, and they chat briefly about Nixon's penchant for smalltalk and what it's like to have one's house invaded this way. From there, the featurette notes how Frost/Nixon was able to take advantage of so many of the actual backdrops behind these interviews, including Nixon's home at La Casa Pacifica, the very same room at the Beverly Hilton that Frost had stayed in, and even the helicopter in which Nixon had made his final departure from the White House. Frank Langella also speaks about learning one of Nixon's compositions on the piano.

  • The Making of Frost/Nixon (23 min.; HD): This comprehensive making-of piece is primarily anchored around the process of adapting the stage play to the screen, the heavy emphasis placed on spontaneity and improvisation, and the cast's thoughtful interpretations of these real-life figures. (Most memorably, Langella notes how he stayed in character throughout virtually the entire shoot, to the point of asking to be referred to as "Mr. President" on the set.) The wardrobe and production design are also explored in detail along with the freewheeling camerawork.

  • The Real Interview (7 min.; partially HD): Frost/Nixon's cast and crew reflect on watching these interviews when they first aired more than thirty years ago, and it's noted how accurately the stage play reflects the two men's hours of exchanges even with as tightly condensed as they had to be. Excerpts from the original interviews -- shot decades ago on standard definition video, it ought to go without saying -- have also been provided.

  • The Nixon Library (6 min.; HD): The last of Frost/Nixon's featurettes takes a look at The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, touching on its history, its mission statement, and the overall importance of presidential libraries.

  • Audio Commentary: I'll admit to thinking that this conversation with director Ron Howard would've been better suited to an extended interview rather than a two hour commentary track. There's an enormous amount of information offered here that isn't highlighted anywhere else on this Blu-ray disc, but there are so many lengthy lulls in the commentary that it can be a problematic listen. Among the highlights are how quickly and decisively this project came together, expanding the scope of the original play for this feature film adaptation, likening the film to both Apollo 13 and the boxing of Cinderella Man, shooting the Frost/Nixon interviews in sequence, opting for more of a traditional score rather than leaning on licensed music, and struggling to keep up with such a tight schedule. This commentary is engaging when Howard is speaking, but there are so many lengthy gaps that it's better left playing in the background rather than actively watched.

  • U-Control: Running
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    picture-in-picture extras have been a staple of Universal's day-and-date releases on Blu-ray, but Frost/Nixon may be the studio's strongest effort yet.

    Its primary picture-in-picture feature strikes an exceptionally compelling balance between a feature-length documentary and an audio commentary. It runs throughout the entire length of the film, expanding greatly on many of the comments highlighted elsewhere on this disc. The real-life David Frost and James Reston in particular are lavished with quite a bit of screentime, including Frost noting that he agreed with the idea of not having editorial control over the play and Reston's concerns about Frost having emceed a Christmas party of Nixon's some years earlier. The many interviews featured here offer details that add quite a bit of context to the scenario, and they also contribute an enormous amount of insight into these men and the performances of the actors portraying them. Frank Langella's many thoughtful comments -- both about his approach as an actor as well as the transformation of political figures in recent decades -- alone are worth setting aside two hours to explore this U-Control feature.

    "The Nixon Chronicles" is far more sporadically used but does a wonderful job placing some of the events and supporting players in an additional context. Among the notes offered are John Ehrlichman's concerns about Nixon's drinking, the startling number of guns and rifles scattered throughout the Smiths' home where the interviews took place, the effect this situation had on 'checkbook journalism' and executive privilege, and brief biographies of some of the men featured or referenced off-hand throughout the film. "The Nixon Chronicles" also features a fair amount of footage of Nixon himself, from defending himself during the "Checkers Speech" to his landmark debate with John F. Kennedy to his accomplishments in foreign policy. Footage from Nixon's resignation speech as well as his funeral are also showcased. Most notable, though, is the way footage from the film and the original interviews are placed side-by-side during the Watergate session, and the audio can be freely toggled back and forth between the two.

    Because both of these U-Control features include their own audio, the two cannot be played simultaneously.

  • BD Live: Frost/Nixon does sport some level of online connectivity, but as I write this, there's nothing to see other than plugs for other Universal releases.

The Final Word
Among the most exceptional films of 2008, Frost/Nixon is an unrelentingly gripping character study about two men striving to prove themselves in the daunting shadows of their insecurities. Even with as deeply as these interviews have embedded themselves in the public consciousness -- and despite the obvious lack of any sort of stock thriller theatrics -- Frost/Nixon still stands strong as one of the most suspenseful films I've seen in the past year, and the warmth and humanity with which it's infused make it that much more compelling. Frost/Nixon looks outstanding in high definition, and bolstered further by a sprawling and rewarding selection of extras, this film is essential viewing on Blu-ray. DVD Talk Collectors' Series.
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