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Films: Frost/Nixon (15)

“400 million people were waiting for the truth”... Stuart Ian Burns is bowled over by a masterpiece

Published on January 27th 2009.


Films: Frost/Nixon (15)

ACADEMICS are going to love Frost/Nixon. Once this masterpiece reaches DVD, universities will order multiple copies and, for years, film and politics students will find themselves tasked, just as they already are with All The President’s Men, with considering its implications.

They'll be asked about its role in both in fictionalising an important event in political history, and its relationship with the media, and so American citizens. They might even consider how those same people viewed their outgoing Commander-in-Chief, George W Bush, at the time of the movie's release - a man who at least had the comfort of knowing that he managed to survive through two whole terms, despite ending with an approval rating even lower than this film's co-subject.

The film explains just how chat show host David Frost, who, in Peter Morgan’s script, is considered a lightweight, accomplish what no venerated member of the journalistic establishment was able to: coax disgraced ex-President Richard Nixon into admitting his misdeeds in the Watergate affair and, more than that, confess his betrayal of the American people. This isn’t just a great docu-drama, it’s like a great boxing film, the underdog taking blows in the early rounds before finally breaking the implacable opponent, but with words instead of punches, never completely jettisoning intellectual rigour and thematic depth in favour of low blows.

Morgan takes time to explain who these two individuals are, and why they’re choosing to take up the fight. During the exposition-heavy first hour, Frost is shown as still maintaining a playboy lifestyle. His career was in freefall but is a bit of a bore, he was afraid of losing the trappings of fame.

Nixon, on the other hand, has entered the political wilderness, having gone from diplomatic talks with China to negotiating the fee for his autobiography, an intellectual powerhouse who simply misunderstood the responsibilities of his office. Both had something to gain from the interview - a reinvigoration of their personal reputations as they oscillate between celebrity and infamy.

In tandem, we get the measure of the two lead performers and it’s bungling on the part of the Academy that only

one of the men was in receipt of Oscar nomination, since they're both are flawless.

Frank Langella, who looks nothing like Nixon, captures the essence of him, and with far more sensitivity than the buck-tooth cartoon character Anthony Hopkins offered in Oliver Stone’s biopic.

Having already inhabited the characters of Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams on screen, Michael Sheen, as Frost, begins the film in full imitation mode, the near catchphrase and the nasal delivery, then he dials down the mannerisms so that though we’re always aware that this is supposed to be the man who presented That Was The Week That Was, it’s never a caricature.

As with his previous commemoration of the Apollo 13 mission, director Ron Howard is able to produce an intense drama from a known event by emphasising the lesser known details. Some might not have realised that the producer of this original TV adventure was Liverpool's John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) who brought the internal market to the BBC under Thatcher.

As sponsors and broadcasters drop in and out and Frost draws the ire of his researchers (played by the surprisingly understated Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt playing the same son-of-a bitch he always does) who scream that he’s not taking this self-made assignment professionally enough, especially with the constant distraction of a new girl (a luminous Rebecca Hall).

In opening out the film, much like old Hollywood adaptations, writer Morgan retains the intimate atmosphere of theatre by keeping the majority of the scenes in private, intimate spaces like plane carriages and hotel rooms, and Howard frames most of his shots in close up like the framing of the interview itself, dragging it from the stage into the grammar of television, and with none of the incoherent camera work and editing that some directors are tempting to use when faced with long scenes filled with dialogue (eg, W). He also beefs up some of the supporting figures, providing Kevin Bacon with his best role in years as a Nixon aide.

Having provided all of this set up, Howard then steps back and allows his actors the space to recreate the electricity that must have existed not only during the original stage run, but also in that suburban sitting room during the 70s as Frost finally wielded the investigative dexterity you suspect he always had the capacity for and has shown since, attempting to demolish an adversary who is dashed him around the ring – or in this case the space between two cheap sitting room chairs.

We’re captivated, and that is the achievement of the play and now this film. We know the outcome, we know this is just the story of a television interview and yet we’re hanging on every word. 9/10

*Frost/Nixon is now on general release

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

DigJanuary 27th 2009.

Ah yes the infamous Sayers convention of 56'. My grandad went to that but had to leave early as he was feeling a little pasty. He regrets leaving early now after missing the riots started by your good self. I have a picture of yourself during those riots on my wall. Cap on, scarf around your face about to hurl a bunch of flowers at the baton police. The Prof immortalised by Banksy eh? I wonder if our fellow ranters knew that about yourself?

Professor ChucklebuttyJanuary 27th 2009.

Dig, I am always happy to advise on such matters. The city,is now relying on us and the profound contibutions of our fellow ranters to raise the level of intellectual debate and develop a new philosophy to guide us in this post Capital of Custard Crunch. The intellectual battenberg was passed to me by Bertrand Russel at the Sayers convention of 1956 when after one too many Harvey's Bristol Creams, he lost his footing boarding a tram and hit his head on a bollard. From that day on he believed he was the fourth Beverley Sister, denied fame and fortune for being born out of wedlock. I hushed it all up at the time to maintain his reputation and for years had to write all his stand-up gigs.

TONEJanuary 27th 2009.

i've wandered into a parallel universe again. and isn't it wonderful?

DigJanuary 27th 2009.

I'm definately going to see it now. I never knew any of that Professor. It's amazing what you can learn thanks to the enlightened Liverpool Confidential ranters. I can't wait to tell my friends what I have learned here today.

Professor ChucklebuttyJanuary 27th 2009.

Congratulations to on Mr Sheen's polished performance and resisting the over use of the famous Frosty catchphrase - "Theeeeeeey're great!!"

Professor ChucklebuttyJanuary 27th 2009.

Yes indeed. The Forget-me-not-riots. I had forgotten about them. Banksy was a great artist, it is a shame he gave it up when he got his first England cap but then he wouldn't have found fame in the '66 Cup final and lifted the Jools Holland Trophy for Boogie-woogie piano jumping.

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