Actions speak louder than words in ‘Frost/Nixon’

frostnixon1There’s a sad irony to Frost/Nixon as it parallels today’s political landscape: A wartime president with incredibly low approval ratings, belligerently refusing to admit any fault in a conflict costing countless lives.

What’s perhaps equally tragic is this sort of naked, no-holds-barred exchange, ratings-be-damned type of mainstream television, will most likely never happen in our lifetime; as we are already being treated to a “re-writing” of our sitting president’s history by a cadre of his operatives.As both Frost (played by Michael Sheen) and Nixon (played ny Frank Langella) get top billing, there is a third headliner of the film and that is the role of the ol’ boob tube itself.

Not only are those days of televised journalism over, but the film demonstrated just how valuable it was politically. From Nixon’s admission to his sweaty upper lip costing him a debate, to Frost’s entire interview being all-but obsolete after no major network agrees to air it, Frost/Nixon demonstrated just how integral the tube had become in the American political landscape.

There is a workman-like structure to the film, which follows the waning days of both its leads careers – Frost, once an international talk show sensation, now resorting to stories on magicians in his British homeland, and Nixon, resigning his post in a web of paranoia-fueled corruption.

In a desperate move for legitimacy, Frost attempts to nab Nixon for a four-part interview, but soon realized how deep he’s in it after the tv studios reject it and Nixon proves to be much more cunning and savvy a subject than his hangdog expression appears.

If possible, Langella should be nominated for his body language over his vocal delivery, which is more mockery than manifestation. While his harumphing and bluster can distract, the small, subtle shifts and physical tics are what makes him so imminently watchable.In his performance, we get more out of his long, uncomfortable stretches of silence, body adjustments and far-off inner reflection than we do from his line readings.

The dialogue, based on the award-winning Broadway production from Peter Morgan, does have its crackling moments , such as Nixon effortlessly burrowing under Frost’s skin mere moments before they “go live” in order to knock him off balance.

(As a personal aside, those scenes reminded me of my own unnerving dalliances as a guest on live broadcast TV. On a local news program,  I nervously tried to memorize all my responses, focusing on being calm, cool, relaxed and witty . This was made increasingly more difficult as the camera rolled threateningly closer to my face and its operator started the countdown: “and in five!…four! … three!… *Remember, Rob, don’t look directly into the camera*…two!…one! …”)

I think there are deer out there that did a better job not looking into headlights than I.

As David Frost, Sheen recalls the stiff, slightly befuddled Tony Blair he provided for The Queen. You can sense his desperation that, being a public TV personality he’s not allowed to leak in the public eye.

Director Ron Howard is such an unobtrusive director, he’s the perfect choice to helm a feature based on a stage play, where every move matters. He does not waste time with artistic flourishes, but punches it with just enough theatricality to make it appealing to large audiences.

Like JFK Howard understands the importance of a shiny supporting cast : think Ed Harris in Apollo 13, Robert DeNiro in Backdraft and Wilson in Cast Away.Here, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones all provide what is required from roles such as theirs, pithy, scene-grabbing deliveries within their respective minutes on screen.

I know Frost / Nixon is being floated as Oscar bait, and while both leads are worthy of some acknowledgement, I can’t bring myself to wholly support this as a serious contender to the already strong list of potential candidates already making the rounds.

It’s perhaped a bit too polished for one of the most tarnishined times in our nation’s presidential history.

~ by usesoapfilm on December 13, 2008.

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