Sunday, April 26, 2009

Frost Nixon: Grade A

Frost Nixon (2008)
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall. Director Ron Howard.

Langella plays Richard Nixon as a discouraged, self-pitying, defeated man, which he was after the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation from the presidency. Sheen is David Frost after his talk show did not survive in New York and he was reduced to interviewing starlets on Australian TV. Both men are has-beens who crave redemption. The first part of the story is about Frost putting together the famous Frost-Nixon interviews, risking his own money and career to do it. Nixon is motivated by the money but also by the chance to redeem himself with the American public, not realizing that he is universally despised. Frost knows that Americans want to hear Nixon admit wrongdoing and apologize for it.

From reading Nixon’s memoirs, I became convinced that he suffered from a mental disorder, and this movie portrays that well. Oblivious of reality, Nixon blusters his way through the interviews until the very end, when Frost finally corners him and Nixon seems to have a moment of self-awareness in which he sees that he is culpable and socially irredeemable. The dialog of the interviews is taken from the actual transcript, as are many of the camera angles and closeup shots. The movie has a real documentary quality.

Even after all this time it is shocking to hear Nixon aver, “If the president does it, it is not illegal.” Despite the patent absurdity of that belief, it did return to the White House with George W. Bush and director Howard may have intentionally drawn that parallel as a political comment. But this is a great drama in its own right that does not rely on historical knowledge for its tension. Still, it serves an educational purpose, since nobody under 40 years old today will remember those events. The movie well-deserved its multiple academy award nominations.

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