Posted December 21 2008 - 06:24 AM
| Originally Posted by Adam Lenhardt |
If nothing else, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella bring their award-winning performances intact from the West End stage play.
Also Broadway, where the play was a big success. Langella won the Tony award for best actor in a play and richly deserved it.
Having enjoyed the play, I had my doubts when I heard that Ron Howard was directing, because his track record is decidedly mixed. But this is one of his best films.
It helps that Howard has a Peter Morgan screenplay to work from. Frost/Nixon
was Morgan's first play, and because he's a more experienced screenwriter than he is a playwright, he's able to work out plot elements in cinematic terms that gave him trouble on stage. In particular, the thorny details of Frost's problems raising the money to finance the production of the interviews (and pay the fees Nixon demanded) come through with much more impact in the film, so that you get a more vivid sense of the enormous risk that Frost was taking.
Langella and Sheen are both magnificent, but the film balances them more equally than the play. The play was Langella's show, in part because his portrayal of Nixon is so compelling -- and I say this as someone who was around for both his terms in office and celebrated when he resigned -- and because Langella is one of the last of the old school of actors like Jason Robards and George C. Scott who really understand how to play big personalities on stage. Langella may not look or sound like Nixon, but he is
Nixon -- he conveys the man's presence and essence just as I remember it, to the point where I was simultaneously fascinated and repelled. Langella has appropriately scaled down his performance for the camera, and the result is to make the film much more the clash of unlikely opponents that the title conveys. (On stage, even though Frost wins, it was still no contest.)
While Morgan has played freely with the facts surrounding the making of the Frost interviews, the historical facts of the Nixon presidency have been scrupulously respected. For those who weren't around for Watergate but want to get an interesting look at the passions it evoked at the time, this is a great way to do it. The film is hugely entertaining, filled with colorful personalities embodied by a great cast, especially Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon's loyal aide, and Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr., the journalist and academic who reluctantly helped Frost prep for the interviews. The scene where Reston first comes face to face with Nixon, after years spent despising him from afar, is one of the more memorable moments in the film (helped along by the always dependable Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick, another of Frost's journalistic handymen). Rebecca Hall, from Vicky Christina Barcelona
, plays Frost's girlfriend at the time; the character is said to be based on Carol Lynley.
The high point of the film is a certain late night phone call that Morgan has imagined but that is so true to the people involved that it feels like it should have happened. When it played in the theater, people literally held their breath. Langella has said in interviews that Howard shot the scene repeatedly in continuous takes until he got it right. It shows.