Sunday, January 4, 2009

High-Octane Conversation

The power of Frost/Nixon lies in the power of its words. Here is a film that consists almost entirely of conversations--between David Frost and his associates, between Richard Nixon and his confidants, and most powerfully of all, between Frost and Nixon. Yet in spite of the potentially limiting nature of its storytelling, the film is riveting precisely because those conversations are more provocative and intense than most big-budget action sequences. I think I may have also said something to that effect about Doubt, and there is a common link between the two films--the power of face-to-face conflict sets the audience on the edge of their seats.

When K and I were last in New York, the Tony-winning Broadway stage version of Frost/Nixon was in its closing days. We didn't get to see the show, but the film wisely brings back the play's most potent figures, Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon. The two actors so effortlessly but complexly embody their characters that when they finally clash in the film's conversational showdown, the tension is palpable in ways only capable of being created by the best actors. Frank Langella is a likely Oscar nominee for a portrayal of Nixon that is not a simple impersonation, but an embodiment of a mythical force; his Nixon tough and bullyish, to be sure, but he is also sharp and intuitive, a man who can so effortlessly talk himself out of any situation that it's shocking that he fell so far, so hard. Langella plays the president as forceful, indomitable, brilliant.

Michael Sheen has been the odd-man-out in most pre-Oscar awards buzz of late. The omission is blatant and unfortunate, because his performance is equally powerful in its sheer complexity. He brings to the screen a David Frost that is every bit as fascinating, every bit as expertly drawn as Langella's Nixon. And with material like this, where the balance of power is crucial but the balance of character interest is even moreso, the Frost character is really the most important element of the entire enterprise. Here was a man--essentially a celebrity of fluff, well-liked but little-respected--who took on the most towering, controversial American figure of his time. The progression of the character--from a ratings-hungry, power-grabbing talk show host hellbent on sensationalism to a wizened, well-researched, impassioned journalist searching for the truth all of America desired--is extraordinary, and Sheen finds the right note at every turn. He is equal parts charming and intense, a professional who would never let anyone know the anguish that's buried inside.

At the center of Frost/Nixon is its screenplay, by the ever-talented, openly subversive Peter Morgan. Here, as he did in his celebrated screenplay for The Queen, Morgan stays close to the facts but lets his pen do some fancy fairy-tale dramatizing. The result is an exacting zing of a script, one that is just as revealing as The Queen with slightly less dramatic license taken, which works for the subject matter. 

Long one of Hollywood's most desired projects, Frost/Nixon finally landed at the feet of Ron Howard, who delivers some of his best directorial work in the film. I've long contended that the minutiae of behind-the-scenes film and television production is one of the most compelling subjects for vivid filmmaking, and Howard uses his vast knowledge of the terrain to build some of the most interesting visual flourishes of his career. There are a few stretches where his creativity runs dry and the compositions become slightly more generalized, but when the actors are locked into their interplay--not just Sheen and Langella, but Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and Matthew Macfadyen, among others--Howard fuses the energy of his direction with the potency of their performances, working in tandem with the actors to build a fascinating subtext of unbreakable tension and tenuous power-struggle.

Frost/Nixon is a film of powerful words, and there are no more powerful words in the film than the words that didn't need to be crafted by the filmmakers. The major turning points of the original Frost-Nixon interviews are replicated nearly verbatim, and carry with them the weight of history, coming alive before our eyes. Therein lies the importance of Frost/Nixon; it is, very simply, a great story well-told.

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