Combustible Celluloid
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With: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones, Rebecca Hall, Andy Milder, Kate Jennings Grant, Gabriel Jarret, Jim Meskimen, Patty McCormack, Geoffrey Blake, Clint Howard, Rance Howard, Eloy Casados
Written by: Peter Morgan, based on his play
Directed by: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Running Time: 122
Date: 10/15/2008

Frost/Nixon (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

I Am a Crook

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Very few filmmakers irritate me more than Ron Howard. I hated, hated most of his films of the past decade, which ranged from vulgar, blundering commercialism to vulgar, blundering self-important Oscar-bait. We should all rue the day that he morphed from a lightweight entertainer to an "important artist." To date, his only really good film is Apollo 13 (1995), which somehow balanced a documentary-like flow with effortless suspense. Magically, the new Frost/Nixon does the same; it's Howard's second really good film.

Admittedly, most of the credit probably goes to the screenwriter Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play, and who gets very close to the territory he covered in The Queen (2006). The film revels in journalistic details but creates a flow and pace that allows real characters to break through.

The action takes place after Richard Milhous Nixon has resigned the presidency. He has left the country in a state of frustration, lacking closure. (The country wants an apology.) Meanwhile, a British talk show host, David Frost (Michael Sheen, Tony Blair in The Queen), has requested an interview with the former president, hoping to kick-start his sputtering career.

Nixon (Frank Langella, marvelous), prodded by his literary agent (Toby Jones) accepts for two reasons: 1) The skilled orator Nixon can walk all over the lightweight journalist and perhaps win back some respect, and 2) Frost has agreed to pay.

The interview materializes in four, two-hour sessions, only one of which -- the last one -- will be devoted to the Watergate scandal. Frost gets a team of scrappy helpers and researchers (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) who hole up in a hotel room to bang out all the possible questions and answers. Meanwhile, Frost has more important things to do, like going to movie premieres.

Hence, his first interview is a slaughter; the former president has him for lunch, spending 45 minutes on the first question and making himself look fatherly and wise. By the fourth interview, Frost has re-doubled his efforts and entered the playing field swinging.

Howard films the interview sequences like sports matches. They consist of not much more than two guys sitting in chairs, but they're riveting. They criticize each other's shoes off-camera, and Frost learns how to lean forward rather than passively sitting back. All the aids and advisors and assistants watch from the sidelines, and their faces register all the various blows and misses.

Morgan and Howard include other little dramas that aren't as powerful, such as Frost desperately trying to raise the money for the interview and sell it to the networks, or a couple of private moments between Nixon and Frost, which Morgan must have invented (these couldn't possibly be verified). Occasionally characters turn up talking to some unseen documentary interviewer about the events, which is annoying.

But Frost/Nixon works mainly because of the intellectual battle between two equals, it works because of the superior performances, and it works because -- like The Queen, or Capote and Infamous -- it doesn't try to cram too much biopic material into this single incident.

My favorite moment, however, has to be near the end when Nixon emerges, beaten, from the final interview. He wanders, perhaps a bit dazed, through the throng of reporters and other onlookers, until he spies a lady with a dog. He goes to her and asks, "Is this what you call a Dachshund?" He gives the dog a pat and the lady a smile, and gets into a car.

It's an offhand moment, and the actual exchange has nothing to do with what Nixon is really going through, but it's nonetheless filled with sadness and regret. Howard has blessedly ignored his usual instincts and chosen deflection and subtlety, and we somehow come to understand this complex man through that one moment. That's how powerful cinema can be.

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