Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Great Performances And A Thoughtful Script Come Together Nicely For Frost/Nixon

Except for 2013's underappreciated racecar drama Rush and an acclaimed Beatles documentary from 2015, Ron Howard has spent most of the last decade doing genre work that's ranged from solidly diverting (Solo, Angels & Demons) to outright dismal (Inferno, The Dilemma). That's a shame since I'd say Howard actually works best as a filmmaker when he's doing more grounded dramas. Not every foray into this field works for him, as seen by the messy A Beautiful Mind, but he does tend to have a better track record here since, among other factors, he's usually working with better scripts on the likes of Rush or Apollo 13 than when he's helming mechanically crafted movie adaptations of The Grinch of The Da Vinci Code.

One of Ron Howard's best forays into the world of down-to-Earth dramas, as well as maybe his best work as a director, came about in the 2008 feature Frost/Nixon. Based on a play by Peter Morgan (it also retains the two lead performers from that stage production), Frost/Nixon chronicles the real-world events that saw game show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) becoming the first person to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) after he stepped down from the position of President of the United States in the wake of the Watergate scandal. At first, Frost sees these interviews, which he has to primarily finance out of his own pocket, as merely a way to score some big ratings, the kind that might boost up his profile as a television personality considerably.

Over the course of multiple days of interview Nixon though, Frost begins to realize the greater ramifications of what he's dealing with here. Previously merely a spectator on the whole Nixon fiasco looking to use that disaster for his own benefit, the main arc Frost experiences over the course of the story is that of a man coming to terms with how important it is to actually take a stand for something greater than oneself. Frost/Nixon is the ballad of a man learning to, in the words of Star-Lord, "give a shit" and actually stand for something. As Richard Nixon can attest, it can be easy to stand idly by and look out only for oneself but that's the path that leads only to emptiness rather than true personal satisfaction.

David Frost's transformation from idle viewer looking to cash in on misfortune to someone more dedicated is a fascinating crux of the screenplay penned by Peter Morgan. In adapting his play to the format of cinema, Morgan makes some great calls to ensure that this doesn't just feel like a filmed version of a stage show, most notably in faux-documentary segments that see in-movie supporting characters offer up their perspective on certain events or people to off-screen interviewers. These segments offer up a great chance for the viewer to understand the greater context in which this story is taking place and allow performers like Kevin Bacon that are intentionally relegated to the background during the actual film a chance to step into the spotlight and shine.

Our two titular characters are never interviewed as part of these recurring segments but the performers portraying them still get numerous opportunities to excel in their respective roles. For Michael Sheen, in probably his most high-profile leading man role, he's both fun & believable leaning into the slimy entertainer archetype he's utilized in plenty of other movies, like Tron: Legacy to great effect, but he really impressed me whenever it was time to show more nuance in David Frost, particularly in the final act when his character finally realizes the gravity of the situation he's gotten himself into. Michael Sheen nails portraying the talk show host side of David Forst but he's equally successful at realizing the characters more human side as well.

Of course, the real standout of the cast, which is pretty much all-around superb sans Rebecca Hall getting nothing to do in a throwaway romantic interest role, has got to be Frank Langella. Here is an actor who can be counted on to deliver exceptional work as a performer as reliably as the sun rising in the morning. For the part of Richard Nixon, Langella has an interesting challenge in breaking through decades of pop culture that have rendered this U.S. President as an over-the-top caricature intentionally divorced from reality. These depictions of Nixon can be frequently amusing (I'm as much of a fan of Billy West's Nixon on Futurama as anyone) but that kind of take on Nixon wasn't going to work here and Langella does a phenomenal job capturing the distinctive elements of Nixon while also making him a figure that can both exist comfortably in reality and exude menace. 

The latter element comes from how Langella conveys a subtle calculating nature to Nixon that has the former U.S. president mentally calculating moves against his opponent even when he just appears to be sitting in a chair casually. It's a performance rich with layers, details and power that Langella brings to life beautifully. His performance is frequently further enhanced by editing by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill that refrains from too many cuts that could disrupt the conversation-heavy proceedings, instead, there's a delicately executed sense of purpose to the cuts here that make scenes like, for instance, the interview exchanges between Frost & Nixon utterly compelling. Fusing this subdued but effective editing with two amazing lead performances as well as a great script ensure that Frost/Nixon is so good that once it's done, you'll be saying "Howard, you've done it again!"

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