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Howard/Nixon

December 17th, 2008
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I love movies, and I am fascinated by politics, so it’s no surprise that I am always up for a good political movie.  And make no mistake, Ron Howard’s latest film, Frost/Nixon, is a very good political movie.

Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play (which attracted notice in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2007) and directed by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon details the May, 1977 interviews of former president Richard M. Nixon by British TV personality David Frost.  

Right away the movie gains points in my book by allowing the two leads from the play to reprise their roles.  Michael Sheen, who came to many movie-goers’ attention (including my own) portraying Tony Blair in The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), creates a compelling portrait of David Frost.  Sheen’s Frost is an intensely likable, charismatic man who has achieved great success but who we can see hungers for something more.  At first that is just his quest to nab the next Big Fish for an interview subject, but over the course of his efforts to make the Nixon interviews happen, we see that morph into a search for something a little more serious.  Then there is Frank Langella as Mr. Nixon.  Believe it or not, I first encountered Langella in a terrific three-episode guest-starring role in the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  His intense gaze and deep voice were gripping, and I was quite intrigued, subsequently searching out many of his other performances.  His films don’t always interest me but as an actor he seldom disappoints, embodying roles as disparate as Perry White in Superman Returns or William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck.  Langella’s Nixon is the polar opposite of Sheen’s Frost in terms of appearance and temperament, but he is a powerhouse.  The moments when the full force of his personality break loose are an incredible thing to watch.

I was surprised and intrigued by  the way the film was structured as a faux documentary, continually cutting back to the actors, in their roles, being interviewed as we would expect to see in a real documentary.  I have not seen the original play, so I can’t speak to what changes or adjustments were made in crafting the film.  But as a film, it is compelling.  Frost/Nixon is a very talky movie, but that is not a weakness.  I am always enraptured by films that are able to create dramatic tension from simple conversations.  The pay-off in this film is not an action sequence or a stand-off with guns — it is when these two men finally sit down and talk.  

I should also mention the rest of the impeccably cast supporting roles, in particular the three men who help Frost prepare for the interviews.   Matthew Macfadyen (Tom Quinn, the original lead of MI:5, and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) plays Frost’s producer and main ally, John Birt.  He connects Frost with two investigative journalists in order to prepare him for the interviews: Oliver Platt (who is always wonderful, for me most notably when he played Oliver Babish on The West Wing) as Bob Zelnick, and Sam Rockwell (who first caught my attention in Galaxy Quest and has since been relentlessly entertaining in films like Heist, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and the criminally underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) as James Reston Jr.  This trio brings a lot of energy and humor into what could otherwise have been a rather dour film, and they’re delightful.  

Political films have to walk a fine line between making a statement and being entertaining.  That’s no easy task, but Frost/Nixon does a fine job of it.  There is nothing exactly revelatory here, but it is a fascinating peek into a potent political show-down.  Worth your time.

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