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Sympathy for the Devil.
The movie version of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon became a serious Oscar contender last fall, garnering five nominations. Set in 1977, the film follows British television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen of The Queen) as he takes a huge financial and professional gamble to entice the disgraced ex- President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) into taping a series of four two-hour interviews.
Director Ron Howard sought and gained approval for his production from the Nixon Library. That relationship resulted in access to Nixon's San Clemente estate for the filming, as well as the original house where the interview was taped. Howard was even able to film the actual helicopter that carried Nixon from the White House on the day of his resignation.
The story of a TV host landing the exclusive right to interview Nixon points up the often- unpleasant relationship between politics and the media. The television community and Frost's own producer think he's joking when he puts forward his plan; Nixon ignores the offer until his agent Swifty Lazar negotiates a $600,000 fee. Nixon's advisor Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon from Apollo 13), an ex- Marine, approves of the del because Frost has never done a tough political interview and is certainly outmatched by the experienced speaker Nixon. Frost has to pay a non-refundable $200,000 up front, and he hasn't been able to find a network to pick up the show.
Frost's expert journalist-researchers James Reston Jr. and Bob Zelnick (Sam Rockwell & Oliver Platt) want to rake Nixon over the coals, to give him the public thrashing he escaped when pardoned by Gerald Ford. Frost has a more immediate problem in that legitimate TV journalists have questioned his credibility. Few sponsors have committed to fill out the $2 million budget, and his normal TV show in Australia has been canceled. In the midst of this, Frost carries on his extravagant lifestyle, romancing the beautiful Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall of Vicki Cristina Barcelona). He has little time to devote to the job at hand.
Reston and Zelnick are appalled when Nixon dominates the first interview taping sessions. Nixon puts Frost off balance with small talk and subtle intimidation, and burns up camera time with expansive "trips down memory lane". But Nixon gets drunk and calls Frost on the Friday night before the last, crucial interview on Watergate. Frost realizes that he must properly prepare if he's going to face the cagey politician again. He dispatches Reston to seek out more proof that Nixon was lying about the cover-up. When they go in for the final interview, Frost is ready for combat -- "No holds barred", as Nixon says.
Frost/Nixon is an entertaining and unusual show with excellent acting. Michael Sheen, who looks like a taller Dudley Moore, is amusing as the show-biz go-getter who learns that serious TV requires a serious commitment. Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt present the expository basis for Nixon's crimes while simultaneously providing comedy relief.
Sheen and Frank Langella repeat their roles from Peter Morgan's award-winning 2006 stage play. Langella brings great authority to the film version but only intermittently seems to connect with the Nixon Americans know. Langella's voice and manner exudes a very non-Nixon aristocratic hauteur no matter what or who he plays. Nixon is a difficult man to seriously portray, and Langella captures only some of his qualities. Anthony Hopkins was even less of a physical match in his Nixon biopic, but his critical interpretation nailed Nixon's desperate, spiteful core. Langella's Nixon has a completely inappropriate grace about him. He has an inconvenient perspiration problem, while Hopkins' Nixon simply sweats like a cornered pig.
The screenplay has an odd notion about what the Frost/Nixon interviews accomplished. As if the movie were a documentary on itself, the main characters step out of time to reminisce about the meaning of it all. Bob Zelnick proudly states that their big success was getting what America wanted, an apology from Nixon, which seems completely wrong. What America really wanted was to see Nixon in jail. Not only that, Nixon's so-called apology is mostly another evasion -- he refers only to "possible" crimes and maintains that his mistakes were of the heart and not of the head. That may be good theater but it's not much of an apology for a man caught red-handed in premeditated, calculated high crimes and misdemeanors.
It's no wonder that the Nixon library liked the Frost/Nixon screenplay: the film is very sympathetic to the ex- President. He's shown suffering in a hospital and doddering around his estate like an old guy who deserves a break. We're meant to pity Nixon when he does poorly at a speaking engagement, a spectacle which will seem ridiculous to anyone who has seen Emile de Antonio's documentaries showing Nixon's boorish, imperious behavior at White House functions. This movie about a disgraced politician trying to rehabilitate his image on the television itself seems a mild whitewash. One of screenwriter Morgan's final pronouncements is that television "simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, trenches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot". Well, Frost/Nixon's snapshot shows Nixon to be flawed, but still a great man.
One of the disc extras compares moments from the original interview show with the film version, to demonstrate the accuracy of Frost's questions and Nixon's answers. It's accurate, all right, but Langella's Nixon is far more sympathetic and sincere than the Nixon on the old videotapes. The real Nixon speaks in the same pouting, bitter way he always did. He has much less eye contact with Frost. We can tell that Nixon is carefully choosing each phrase; just one look and we're convinced that even his "heartfelt" apology, is all calculated BS. It's like a far more intimate, subtle Checkers Speech. The problem for the older Nixon is that he has no kingdom to gain by putting on a phony act. He can only play the martyr, the ultimate injured party. As he said earlier, "I'm the last casualty of the Vietnam War."
We also see that, like it or not, Nixon is David Frost's meal ticket to a higher level of success. The best scene is the "cheeseburger" phone call in which Nixon pours out his real heart, a bottomless pit of self-doubt and bitterness. As if searching to disarm Frost with a friendly gesture, Nixon attempts to find common ground between them. Assuming that Frost also hated rich kids in college, Nixon launches a vicious tirade against the bums and enemies that don't want him to succeed. The scene is great because we realize that Frost and Nixon are both obsessed with success. It's just that one of them has a healthy ambition and the other is a very sick man.
Universal's Blu-ray of Frost/Nixon is the expected fine presentation, with excellent color and a clear soundtrack. It comes with a number of informative extras, especially that short featurette that uses clips to compare the original interview with the film's re-creation. The gallery of deleted scenes turns out to be good material wisely excised to keep the pace from flagging, although we do miss the scenes with David Frost performing on his chatty, superficial talk show. A featurette called Discovering Secrets has input from the real Frost, while most of the real-life counterparts for the characters visit the set in a longer making-of piece. The costume and set designers are also given plenty of space to show off their work.
We're finally given a tour of the newly refurbished Nixon Library, which is no longer privately run and has joined a group of other Presidential libraries. Not a minute into the piece, the library is described as "A temple of Democracy".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Frost/Nixon Blu-ray rates:
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