Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Movie Log: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon is a filmed play that at times flirts with being a fake documentary -- even though most of its scenes clearly couldn't have been filmed at the time. So there are "interviews" with some of the major characters, presumably done months or years after the main action of the movie, and the camera generally avoids obvious movement to maintain a "fly on the wall" feeling.

This is, of course, the story of David Frost's interviews with President Nixon, which took place in early 1977, three years after Nixon resigned rather than be impeached. The movie elides those three years in its first ten minutes, running from Watergate into the negotiations for the interviews as if they were only a few months apart. Frost was a minor British TV personality; he'd been kicking around the media world for more than a decade -- he actually had a fawning interview with Nixon a decade before, which the movie doesn't mention -- and had recently lost some fairly high-profile TV work, so he was looking to revitalize his career.

There's a mythology about these interviews, and both the play Frost/Nixon and this movie version of that play entirely buy into that mythology -- that this was a confrontation that only one man could "win," and that Frost was overmatched by Nixon's superior experience, guile, and pure lungpower until the very last day of filming, when Frost pulled out a newly-discovered smoking gun and finally won by getting Nixon to apologize for Watergate and to say "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal." (This is yet another manifestation of the American tendency to see every aspect of life as if it were an athletic contest.) It's not entirely true, but it's a story, and people love stories.

Frost/Nixon also is a political movie in the tradition of All the President's Men, so a secondary focus is on Frost's team -- played by Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Mathew Macfayden -- as they plow through documents and argue with each other like Woodstein.

So there's quite a lot of shiny surface to Frost/Nixon; it's a well-planned and -executed Hollywood product, finely acted and lit and sound-designed and cinematographed and probably craft-tabled, too. This story has now been doubly dramatized: once for the stage and then again for the screen, and it's gotten larger and more templated each time as it's gotten a bit farther away from the reality. But it's still reasonably close to the reality, and it's good to see a movie that really does focus on two actors (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon, both reprising their roles from the play) talking at each other.

1 comment:

Kaz Augustin said...

Now, I enjoyed the movie but Frank Langella's voicing of Nixon was the thing that bothered me. Sometimes, I could hardly understand what he was saying. Mega-plummy.

When I then went to see videos of Nixon himself (yes, I'm that boring), the contrast -- to me -- was stark. And I wondered how/if the theatre audience had problems with Langella's voice too, the stage being a more unforgiving medium.

Also, considering Nixon's real voice is "lighter", I thought the psychological sparring would have been better and more ambiguous, and therefore more dramatic, using this lighter voice, where it wasn't quite so obvious that Nixon was supposed to be the "dark" and Frost was the illuminating "light". Or am I reading too much into all of this, Andrew?

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