How can a dramatised retread of a real-life story whose outcome is as fixed as the sinking of the Titanic circumvent the expectations of audience know-alls to arrive as one of the most surprising films of the year?
How can a dramatised retread of a real-life story whose outcome is as fixed as the sinking of the Titanic circumvent the expectations of audience know-alls to arrive as one of the most surprising films of the year? How, too, can a film hang its crux on a lengthy talking-heads discourse and still make for edge-of-seat cinema? For the answers, you’d best consult ol’ Richie Cunningham himself, Ron Howard, whose enthralling Frost/Nixon
, bashed out on the quick between big-budget Dan Brown adaptations, effortlessly succeeds on both counts.
Any take on the momentous four-part interview broadcasts between one-time international talk show darling, David Frost, and the ignominiously self-exiled former US president, Richard Nixon, would live or die by the strength of its Tricky Dick, and, fortunately, Frank Langella’s growly approximation, come time for the infamous sit-downs, proves a powerhouse turn to pitch a film about; the fit at first seems an odd one, but as tension racks, the performer’s immersion becomes absolute. Langella and co-star Michael Sheen, who’s equally impressive as the last-ditch grabbing Frost, pioneered the roles on the London stage, and their experience inhabiting the characters is evident. Sheen’s Frost is a mid-tier celebrity/socialite with a newly-sparked thirst for integrity, who becomes aware early on that, in taking on Nixon, he may be punching well above his weight, and his subsequent struggle – on camera and off – to make good on his intent to deliver the interview with the slippery ex-prez bookends the screenplay by original playwright (and scripter of Sheen’s previous political picture, The Queen
), Peter Morgan, in satisfying cad-reformed/underdog-made-good fashion, the actor’s proficiency for looks-that-speak-volumes put to work double-time by his director’s lingering lens.
It’s Howard’s belief in (and willingness to exploit) “the reductive power of the close-up” that elevates a final act ostensibly comprised of two men and a clipboard to the realms of lip-biting gladiatorial mind-battle. In fact, so tense is the lead-up to that defining confession of the president’s Watergate guilt that Frost/Nixon
might well qualify as a political thriller – it’s that gripping. Wisely, Howard and Morgan open things up early on, affording free-roaming access to the leads’ private lives (the disgraced Nixon a man desperate to exonerate himself to the American people, Frost’s struggle to secure funding for the production of the interviews and consequent loss of face in the entertainment world), so that when cameras finally roll, we feel the plights of both men evenly – yes, even Nixon’s evasive tactics seem less weaselly here with the benefit of expanded personal insight. Throw in a sterling support cast (Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt) all playing at the peak of their powers and you’ve got Howard’s most exciting film in years.
Literate, slick and altogether riveting, Frost/Nixon adroitly interrogates an oft-scrutinsed modern historical touchstone with a freshness that lands it among the best of the year, Howard’s film (much like Steve McQueen’s Hunger before it) also serving a bracing reminder that the art of the cinematic tête-à-tête is still very much alive.
Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfayden, Toby Jones
This review was first published on http://celluloidtongue.blogspot.com