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A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon.
How To Win By Losing
Ron Howard's new film Frost/Nixon is full of terrific turns by talented actors, from Kevin Bacon as a Presidential aide to Sam Rockwell as an idealistic researcher. Toby Jones, an absolute fixture in Hollywood since "Infamous," is great as Nixon's hygiene-obsessed agent. But the film can only work if the greatest two roles do, and he's chosen his actors well.
Frank Langella is a long way here from his classic horror-movie role of Dracula, where most people may know him from. But he's always been an actor of depth and power, and he calls on both here to conjure a reflection of Nixon that's both evocative of the real man and immensely sad.
Langella's Nixon is a man who has lost the only thing that matters to him: involvement in the decisions that change the world. He's flailing, lost, trying to carry on while banished to the West coast to play golf and molder in obscurity.
Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen) plays the charismatic, media-savvy talk show host David Frost, equally known for his catchphrases and womanizing. It's the fleeting haunted look in Nixon's eyes as he boards the helicopter taking him on his final trip away from the White House that galvanizes him -- to snare an interview with the disgraced President.
But Frost is not motivated by a sense of righteousness or of history. Instead, he sees the potential for a huge media share, and a possible return to the limelight in America.
As he confides, once you've tasted American celebrity, you never stop wanting that rush, that fame. It's something that applies almost equally, perhaps, to Nixon himself.
Frost/Nixon is adapted from a successful stage play, and it shows in some of the film's clunkier moments. There are a series of "archival interviews" with the actors playing the various roles, from Frost's producer to his girlfriend of the time, but these feel false and unnecessary. We're not watching a documentary, after all, and make-believing that we are seems forced.
The same could be said to a lesser extent of one of the film's latter pivotal scenes that reads more like a stage monologue than realistic film dialogue.
But those shortcomings aside, Frost/Nixon is an extraordinary piece, and a fascinating look at one of the most seminal moments in American history.
The central theme of the movie is articulated early on in a clip taken from the news during the impeachment process, that America needed a confession from her commander in chief, to begin to heal, and more, to salvage faith in democracy itself.
It's hard to imagine a Senator or any other politician saying such a thing today.
And it's hard imagine the pain felt in that time, with a President's close advisers standing accused of wrongdoing and the man himself implicated, if not in the crimes than certainly in the cover-up. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.
What the film does so well, beyond capturing the flavor of the interviews themselves and the taste of the time, is to draw parallels between the brash "performer" (as his producer refers to him) and the lonely, isolated statesman with a state.
While Frost struggles to raise the money to pay Nixon for his time and film the interview, calling in personal favors after all the networks turn him down, Nixon sits alone with him demons. But you slowly come to realize that this story is about facing those demons and showing true integrity. For Frost, the question is will he ever see the encounter with Nixon as more than a chance to profit. For Nixon, it's whether or not he will allow himself to stand up, and atone for his part in Watergate.
The result is part of the historical record now, but the cat-and-mouse sparring of the two unlikely adversaries is as compelling as ever.
Throughout, the two men take each other's measure and fight for the high ground. Nixon is the wilier opponent, and Langella captures the man's intelligence and savvy, as well as his charm. And the film makes a stranger claim, or at least offers an interpretation to Frost's success in breaking the legendary control and obtaining the closest thing to an apology he was ever to give.
It's as if Nixon has created a conspiracy of his own with Frost to make certain the interview is a success. Although on the face of it, Nixon claims that it's a battle that only one of them can win, in truth a strong interview makes winners of them both. Frost makes back his money and returns to prominence in the US, and Nixon comes one step closer to getting forgiveness from the American people, and to forgiving himself.
One of the best films of the year, melancholic, moving, and thought-provoking.