Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Richard Nixon was perhaps the most bizarre figure to ever occupy the presidency of the United States, and especially an aberration in the televized era. That he could lose the presidency once primarily due to that oncoming omnipresent fixture of American life, the television set, speaks to the man's knowledge of what had done him in. He knew he was, almost hilariously, the anti-political animal that a John F. Kennedy was. It was not that he was dumb, or particularly more treacherous than most politicians who attain that most noxiously overused phrase mistakenly reserved for highly ambitious rulers of the world, “greatness.” He was simply all wrong for politics. The moment Nixon endeavored to appear and sound respectable and earnest, many people assumed he was lying to them. Words as innocuous as, “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” spilling forth from his glistening-from-perspiration lips, wreathed in his eerily ominous bass voice, made people grimace and groan. Nixon was actually quite bright, especially for an American president of the latter half of the twentieth century—perhaps another, more underappreciated reason he still sticks out today—and constantly made notes to himself to correct this deficit of charisma and manufactured affinity many successful national hucksters respectively employ and engender. In his first term as president, he would tirelessly scribble such embarrassing instructions in self-help as, “Add element of lift to each appearance. Understanding the young... Lift spirit of people—Pithy, memorable phrases.” Nixon knew how the game was played, especially in the era of television—he had once been its chiefest victim, after all—and he desperately wanted to connect with the people through the art of appealing sloganeering and pandering.

With Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard has created another monument to ahistorical sophistry, much like his A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which both wildly distorted true history to serve artistically meager ends of making one character wholly “heroic” while, in the latter case, libelously casting one figure as a loathsome villain. Howard's movies are so impersonal, so slick and inconsequential, that his repetitious bludgeoning of the audience with his subjects' importance is not only alienating, but at this juncture downright comical. Frost/Nixon is based on a stage play, originating in concept from a series of interviews three years after Nixon resigned from office, with the Englishman David Frost. The film is not interested in truly excavating the putrid ugliness of paycheck journalism at the pathetic story's heart—Nixon was paid $600,000 for the interviews, with a third of that up front, and contractually guaranteed twenty percent of all profits derived from the show's exhibition, the latter point being completely lost by Morgan's condescending screenplay.

That is the strategy Morgan and Howard pursue, from the beginning to the conclusion: obfuscation, dishonest revisionism and mischaracterization. How ironic that they doubtless would see in Nixon the very malfeasance of which they are historically and artistically guilty. Why shy away from the ignominiously venal networking between Morgan and Howard's faux pairing of David (Frost) and Goliath (Tricky Dick)? It would deprive them of ensuring that the audience is assuredly relating to Frost as a vicarious interrogator on behalf of virtue and justice when he attempts to slay the demon in their extended boxing match. And Howard does portray the Frost/Nixon interviews as contests of boxing, with two massive personalities dueling. While Howard petulantly strives to make his uncomplicated documentation of pugnacious pugilism, Morgan's screenplay affords Frank Langella's Nixon with a feasible melancholia that treads dangerously close to sloppily sentimentalizing the thirty-seventh president. Moments of loneliness and paranoia unsurprisingly occupy much of Nixon's lackluster post-presidential routine, and Morgan and Howard delineate his fallen star's trajectory through speaking engagements and most confidently in a boozy phone conversation that is probably the film's most curiously efficacious moment.

The performances of Frost/Nixon have received great attention, but they are not especially impressive. Langella as Nixon has the juicy, more carefully modulated part with which to work, but many of his acting choices are either pedestrian or merely adequate. Anthony Hopkins's searing interpretation surpassed imitation; like the Oliver Stone film in which it appeared, it made an embellishment out of not solely Nixon but the “Nixon era” itself—erecting an epic Shakespearean and Marlovian tragedy out of a time, place and man that is effulgent and glowing in its resonance. Langella's hangdog weariness juxtaposed with his Nixon's fits of hysteric yelling recalls some kind of fleeting, off-kilter confluence of Robert Mitchum, Walter Matthau and Al Pacino. However, the film's most perspicuous vacuum is in Michael Sheen's thoroughly uninteresting and inauthentic performance as Frost. Sheen plays Frost as a breathlessly boyish lightweight—and the turn is a total failure as a result. Lost is Frost's public persona, doubtless exaggerated and affected for consumption, of the professorially languorous, vaguely captious purveyor of the postulations of the intelligentsia.

It is oddly fitting that so many of the easily researched factoids of the Frost/Nixon interviews are wholly disregarded, as the entire conformation of the film, and probably the stage play, are in essence a half-truth. Howard is determined to depict these confrontations as the culmination of the entire time period in large part defined by the former president. They were, however, while slightly interesting, little more than one opportunistic figure cashing in on the opportunism of another. Probably unwittingly, Morgan and Howard have essayed the cynical handling of national disgrace as a form of entertainment.

Unfortunately, the screenwriter and director seem incapable of not twisting the facts of the interviews to service their lusterless agenda. In one pivotal moment of the film, Nixon describes himself as “the last casualty of Vietnam”—which would be an intolerable example of hyperbole and self-aggrandizement if it were true. The actual transcript reads, “Frost: ...[P]erhaps you were the last American casualty of the Vietnam War.” To which Nixon seemingly unthinkingly mumbled, “A case could be made for that, yes.” It may seem like a fairly small detail, but it is microcosmic of the artless efforts of legerdemain that characterizes Frost/Nixon, from the dishonest visual conception of the interviews, with the camera inching closer to the two subjects' countenances, to the trite exploration of the rather unexceptional link between them, which may be best understood as an interdependence.


Alexander Coleman said...

I decided to review this film finally, as I realized it was the one Best Picture nominee I had not yet reviewed.

Reviews for...


The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, I am hoping that your second viewing of SLUMDOG has not diminished the film, as I remember with great fondness your love for it, and the fantastic review that is linked up here.

Another fantastic review is also linked here, and that one is of your "other" Nixon film, by Oliver Stone. That was one of Coleman Corner's Hall of Fame pieces.

Your review here for FROST/NIXON is unapologetically scathing.

"With Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard has created another monument to ahistorical sophistry, much like his A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which both wildly distorted true history to serve artistically meager ends of making one character wholly “heroic” while, in the latter case, libelously casting one figure as a loathsome villain. Howard's movies are so impersonal, so slick and inconsequential, that his repetitious bludgeoning of the audience with his subjects' importance is not only alienating, but at this juncture downright comical."

It's rough, but basically true what you say there. Your earlier overview of Nixon (wrong for politics, quite bright, taking notes to bolster his image, etc.) as a segue into Howard/Moragan's handling is deft, as is your most damning charges of "dishonest revisionism", "obfuscation" and "mischaracterization". And you later subsequently ask: "Why shy away from the ignominiously venal networking between Morgan and Howard's faux pairing of David frost and Goliath?"
You also take issue with "national disgrace" being pedaled off as entertainment.
While I will definitely agree with you that Sheen plays an uninteresting character, this was not quite teh case with the Broadway show, where on stage teh character was more charismatic and isolated. Still, I do envision Nixon as paronoic an melancholic, two qualities you did contend he posessed in your Oliver Stone review. I enjoyed the "Shakespeare and Marlovian" context about his character as well.

My favorite Ron Howard film was APOLLO 13. He isn't the worst director of all-time, but his track record is admittedly dire.

You have dissected this film rather mercilessly, but I can't contest you as it's predominantly true. yeah, maybe I liked langhella little more, but that's about it.

Top-rank film criticism here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam. Again I'm most appreciative of your very thorough and intelligent surveying of another review of mine.

Yes, I held off on reviewing Frost/Nixon for a while but decided that, as we near Oscar night, I should at least hammer out some thoughts on it as I had for the other four Best Picture nominees.

I am not surprised that Sheen's performance on stage as Frost was very much different, and vastly more engaging. The further away I went from Frost/Nixon the movie the more inconsequential his performance seemed, and upon reflection I find this movie rather dire, as you note Howard's filmography generally is. You're right: Howard is fairly competent, for the most part, but I find his unnecessary contortions of history highly troubling since he has nothing particularly worthwhile to say.

Again, though, thank you very much for the thoughts and kind words about this and other reviews! :)

Anonymous said...

I hated this movie!!! Awesome review, man!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Coleman. Your take on Frost/Nixon is replete with thoughtfulness and erudition, as is everything you post here. In fact, some of your essays are, in my humble opinion, among the best I have read on cinema, period, and I do not make that statement offhandedly. You are clearly an incredibly gifted writer and critic, and your astute observations advance discussion in very cogent and relevant ways. Admittedly, it took me several reads to digest some of your more trenchant pieces, sending me on more than one occasion to the dictionary (or at least the online equivalent). Being new to the site I am struck by how often I agree with your point of view – what’s even better though, is that you have made me consider films I admire in new ways I didn’t think possible. Upon first encountering your stuff, I truly found myself thinking, who is this guy?... With that said, I am not sure that I can fully endorse your thoughts on Frost/Nixon. First, while Stone's Nixon is, as you state, a superior film, I am not sure it’s fair (even given the similar subject matter) to compare the two. Analysis of film must (I believe) take into account an author's intent with regards to genre and scope (how much exactly they are trying to bite off), and the aim here was clearly at detailing a very specific series of events within a contained time period as opposed to Stone's epic, Shakespearean-like handling of a wider breadth of political events occurring around one very prominent character. While Ron Howard is in no way an auteur (he is, in fact, a competent Hollywood director who works with a creative producer to develop commercial projects), and obviously has had issues with disseminating bad history (I am also not a huge fan of A Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man), one should perhaps take into consideration that, given the nature of the subject matter, this was a difficult one - at least from a cinematic perspective. Please understand, Mr. Coleman, I write this not as an apologist for Howard, or his directorial career (I truly have no horse in this race), but merely as a response to the individual piece on this particular film. As you allude to in your essay, yes, the tete a tete was very much framed as a boxing match, a little simplistic, and perhaps an overly commercial way to go. But I disagree with the contention that this was painted as a straight David vs. Goliath match-up. While the overall feel may have been Rocky-esque, Frost was portrayed as something of a vacuous fool, which undercut an audience's ability to fully root for the character. And even if the nominal “cause” itself (i.e. ascertaining the "truth") was worthy of support, Frost was clearly more concerned about his own interests, and I don’t think the film tries to hide this fact at all. Any identification with Frost as “hero” arises more out of his pure audacity and chutzpah than the idea that he is intellectually inferior and thus out of his league in this match-up. You quite rightly, and provokingly, criticize Sheen's performance - I would call it slightly overrated (as opposed to “a total failure”), but point made. I would argue that the two leads are at worst, competent, and that the supporting cast (particularly Rockwell and Platt) is significantly better. If Langella’s/Howard’s characterization of Nixon veers toward sentimentality (and I’m not so sure it does) than doesn’t that undercut the idea of this being sold as a morality play with a cardboard villain and a hero? In fact, I think an attempt was made to simply portray Nixon as flawed, but human. Several years removed from an historically catastrophic departure from the white house, maligned the world over, is it a stretch to surmise that Nixon may have been depressed, maudlin, and/or sentimental? I think Howard's biggest mistake (and you are all over this area) is that he missed out on what should have been a dissection of the cynicism attached to paying a subject for an interview that was purported, at least on some level, to be straight news, and how both sides were awash with agendas within their respective camps – a point that is probably not given enough detailed examination or emphasis. And yes, leaving out Nixon's profit share was significant and never should have been excluded from the film. This would have further elucidated the complicity associated with this whole undertaking, a fact that perhaps makes any resulting revelation all the more incredible. I would also say that in many ways Nixon, does, in my opinion, come off as the more sympathetic of the two characters. While Frost effectively pulls out a last minute "victory" it is only (despite his “cramming”) due to someone else’s acumen, research, and investigation (and furthermore it’s basically a bombshell - and not the result of great interviewing skills - that uncovers the information). It is also made clear at the end of the film that this was the highlight of Frost’s entire career, and that he would never enjoy journalistic credibility. In fact, he never really sought it in the first place (which is worse). Again, as you point out, the connection between these two men (as men) is stretched and overblown, and the strain from that is felt, although they did share this moment in time, and it was a fairly significant event in American history. There is no doubt too that these men were joined in this somewhat sordid venture, with everything but justice and truth being at the forefront, which would make them something along the lines of co-conspirators. I saw the end of the film as Frost the man (as opposed to Howard/Morgan) attempting to connect them further, a sojourn, which to me, resulted in a kind of emptiness that refuted that desire. My personal feeling was very much that Frost was merely a fly who flew into Nixon’s zone momentarily, as opposed to some inextricably linked foe. What made the interview significant was its exclusivity, and the fact that a quasi-mea culpa wound up being issued, not the relationship itself. Finally, not being a history scholar, I cannot in truth refute your rather scathing and vitriolic claims of Howard’s “obfuscation”, and “dishonest revisionism” and “miscategorization” in relation to this film, but I would say that the “easily researchable factoids” provided here to support those allegations are a little on the scant side, and perhaps there is a responsibility to clearly and definitively back up those kinds of statements with historical examples. I do see the difference between having Nixon speak the lines about being the last casualty of Vietnam as opposed to simply agreeing to a statement, although the man (however tired and beaten down) did agree with the statement (this is part of the reason why criminal/deposition/documentary/lie detector/psych subjects are interviewed at great length – there is something to be gained from the accumulation of questions, lines of questioning, and time). There is also some room available for the granting of artistic license, even if Howard has a history of overstepping this elusive boundary - something Stone too has long been accused of... Mr. Coleman, I thank you for making me think much more deeply about this film (and a number of others), and hope that there is, at least, some validity to the thoughts expressed here.

Alexander Coleman said...

Anonymous, I have just stopped by and read your astonishingly comprehensive, gracious and thoughtful comment. Time restraints at this juncture disallow me to give your comment the time and justice of response it most adamantly deserves. Please know that when I do find the time to satisfactorily respond, I will do so. Please know that I am deeply honored by your visits, as you have tremendously enriched Coleman's Corner in Cinema with your magnificent comment. For that, I thank you, Anonymous. Again, I will more properly respond to your dazzling participation here as soon as I am able to.