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Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

By Justin Velasquez

February 4, 2009

There are films that come along that effectively feature two stars.  Those two stars and their performances are at the core of the film and neither performance would be able to carry the entire vehicle without the other - one's performance feeds off of the other.  Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard's first project since 2006's The Da Vinci Code, is that film.  A somewhat fictionalized retelling of the widely popular interviews, Frost/Nixon is based on the award-winning London and Broadway play.

The story is simple - President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella, in an Oscar-nominated performance), having been disgraced due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal, was looking to clear his name (or at least redeem his image).  Despite President Gerald Ford's pardon the nation was still enraged at the alleged wrongdoing that occurred during Nixon's tenure.  Enter David Frost (Michael Sheen, 2003's Underworld & 2006's The Queen), a fairly well-known television personality whose popularity was waning.  He was the host of a New York-based talk show that was recently cancelled and the result was his show's relocation to Australia.  Nixon and his camp agreed to an interview with Frost because it was the best opportunity to accomplish the task at hand - plus they saw him as a pushover.  Frost pushed for the interview because a verbal exchange with such a high-profile figure (with maybe a coerced admission of guilt) could revive his career.

The highlight of Frost/Nixon is the interview itself.  It is actually a series of interviews and Nixon, in addition to a chance at redemption, is getting rich in the process.  Frost paid top-dollar for the opportunity to interview him and this event will result in better public standing for the "winner".  From the beginning it looked like Nixon would be that man.  Frost, known mostly for interviewing celebrities and isn't considered a true journalist, seems out of his league as his tough questions are diffused by the man who has earned his nickname of "Tricky Dick".  He deflected Frost's questions early on, deciding on long, drawn-out stories that have no gravitas during the interviews.  But towards the end of the interviews, Nixon's chance phone call to the British TV personality motivates Frost to launch a counterattack and put Nixon on his heels

Frost/Nixon is an excellent film to watch in order to comprehend the importance of acting beyond the spoken word.  The little things: a person's hand covering his mouth, a raised eyebrow, a quizzical stare, a deep inhalation of air, uncomfortable shifting in a seat, perspiration and even the mere look of guilt are the things to look for here.  Both Sheen and Langella perfect this subtle aspect of acting and this is to the viewer's benefit.  Everything each actor does and says speaks volumes in this verbal battle where only one person can win.  In the film, Frost and Nixon's exchanges go from light and soft (the way Nixon and his camp prefer it) to accusatory and regretful (Frost and his camp's preference).  Either way the banter between the two is delightful - the "practice" the two actors had with these roles on stage certainly shows.

The interesting thing about the two men is the mutual need to be liked.  Both Frost and Nixon are failures in areas where popularity and likability are essential.  Both men are willing to capitalize on the other's weaknesses to improve their image.  But as the tension in front of the camera increases, the irony is the subtle envy and possible jealousy that Nixon has towards Frost off camera.  Frost, being a television personality, naturally has a charisma and charm that radiates regardless of where he is.  Those qualities are gifts that Nixon lacks and ultimately that hurts him in the interviews and more importantly, in his presidency (those tapes didn't help, either). 

For all the popularity of the actual interviews director Ron Howard did a great job creating the intimacy that playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan's stage production likely displayed.  The chess match between the two men is captivating and their rapport is more thrilling than most action scenes.  Frost/Nixon is an achievement where the acting is the film's focus and strength - that adds up to an artistic piece worthy of viewing.

Three stars out of Four


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