Doodad Kind of Town


Some Thoughts on "Frost/Nixon"
December 30, 2008, 12:26 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

When I’m really engaged and engrossed in a movie, I tend to physically lean towards the screen. If the seat ahead of me is vacant, I’ve been known to even end up clutching the back of that seat. “It had me on the edge of my seat,” is not just an empty cliche when it comes from me. If the movie is good enough, I’m not just on the edge of my seat, I’m practically out of it.

No fewer than three times while watching “Frost/Nixon” last night, I moved to the front in my seat in wide-eyed fascination. That ought to indicate the greatness of the film I was watching, but today I find myself second-guessing some of my initial enthusiasm.

You see, I’m old enough to remember the events of “Frost/Nixon” quite well. And much as I was taken with the magnificent performances of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in the title roles, the life-or-death historical significance that the film assigns to the television interviews which are its subject just does not jibe with my memories of the actual events.

What I like about this film, apart from the caliber of the acting, is that it absolutely rings true with regard to its portrayal and observations of Richard Nixon. What I don’t like is that it seems to elevate lightweight celebrity interviewer David Frost to journalistic hero status, a transition I don’t think ever took place in real life.

I was a 17-year-old high school senior when David Frost’s infamous interviews with the disgraced former president were aired. We didn’t watch them in their entirety at our house, but I can recall watching excerpts on the news, reading and listening to the post-interview commentary. And what I remember most clearly is the parody that aired on Saturday Night Live the following weekend. Eric Idle’s unctuous Frost allowed Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon to drone on and on with endless, convoluted stories about his childhood (how his mother made oatmeal, how his father would mix hot and cold water in a basin in preparation for his morning shave). The sketch ended with a credits roll which attributed just about everything short of the creation of the world to David Frost – and behind which Idle performed dog tricks like “fetching” and sitting on Aykroyd’s command.

The indelible impression I received from both that parody and the serious commentary was that the Frost/Nixon interviews were long on evasive, gasbaggy details, short on substance and revelations. Ultimately, this ‘major television event’ just wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And Frost’s seriously overstuffed ego remained an object of ridicule.

I guess I can’t really beat up screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted his own stage play) for taking dramatic license with historical events; it no one did that, the movies would be a very dull medium indeed. (Not to mention theatre. And books.) The interview scenes in this film are riveting. They’re the points at which I went to the edge of my seat. But even as I did so, somewhere a voice in the back of my head was saying “Oh, pul-lease!”The dialogue is historically accurate, but judiciously edited for maximum effect. And the actors’ well-rehearsed line readings give it a power and punch that was never achieved in real life (If you doubt that, go look at some of the actual interview clips at frostnixon.com.)

Yes, Nixon did make the incriminating statement “If the president does it, then it’s not illegal.” But not nearly as emphatically as Langella make that point.

It’s hip and fashionable – and incredibly easy – to take potshots at director Ron Howard. He is a competent purveyor of slick, middlebrow entertainments, but certainly no innovator. If “Frost/Nixon” is one of his more electrifying efforts, it’s because it didn’t take a lot of work on his part to make it so. All he had to do was put a camera on Langella and another one on Sheen and let ’em rip. Recreating their original stage roles, this duo is compulsively watchable.

Frank Langella doesn’t look anything like Nixon and doesn’t sound much like him either, but Nixon impersonators are a dime a dozen. What Langella does, like no one before him, is to reach into and illuminate the depths of both the man’s deviousness and inner torment. He’s all tics and Nixonian mannerisms, but those tics are grounded in a powerful undercurrent of melancholy and self-loathing. In a film which ultimately glorifies “the reductive nature of the television closeup,” Langella works his final close-up like nobody’s business; he quivers with unexpressed regret, sadness, defiance and humiliation, almost all at once. It’s the kind of performance that you completely forget is a performance. You lose sight of the fact that you’re not looking at the real Nixon.

Sheen, as David Frost, has the thankless role – unlike his interview subject, Frost doesn’t loom large in our collective psyche, and doesn’t trigger strong emotions. But Sheen gets at Frost’s smarmy self-regard and shallow charm while making him an ultimately sympathetic character. That Sheen is both considerably more attractive and a much more agreeable presence than Frost himself certainly helps here.

And on the subject on Frost, here’s one more thing the film gets wrong. Frost was hardly a washed-up celebrity at the time of the interviews. His U.S. talk show may have been behind him, but he was still, certainly a Very Big Deal. And, also contrary to what this film implies, not all that well-liked in celebrity circles. I’m a big British comedy fan, and from what I’ve read, he is widely reviled among the prominent comedians of his generation. Certainly Eric Idle’s SNL appearance was not the first time he’d taken on Frost. Here’s a clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which Idle skewers Frost in the form of a thinly veiled caricature named Timmy Williams:

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7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

And, also contrary to what this film implies, not all that well-liked in celebrity circles.Is Frost an adviser on the film? It would explain the bias …You’re right, it’s easy to pan little Ronnie Howard, isn’t it? But his movies are entertaining, though generally not great cinema, and he is a consummate pro. Nobody’s ever given me 50 million or so to make a glorious, over-the-top piece of high-budget trash like “The Da Vinci Code”. Where else could you see Paul Bettany as a sado-masochistic albino monk and Tom Hanks in a mullet IN THE SAME MOVIE?

Comment by Rick Olson

“Is Frost an adviser on the film? It would explain the bias …” Haha, if that is the case, just haha.I know next to nothing about the events depicted in the film (although I did feel compelled to do some research prior to watching the film, but I nonetheless thought it was a damn fine piece of dramatic filmmaking which I never expected from Ron Howard. Plus, Langella’s performance was breathtaking (for him as well it seemed, lol).

Comment by nick plowman

Rick and Nick -Nothing I’ve seen gives the sloightest indication that Frost was involved with either the film or the play which begat it.To be clear, this is a very good, very entertaining film. But I never liked Frost, and I’m not quite on board for what feels like a revisionist take on his career.

Comment by Pat

The reason I asked is that he was hitting the old plugging trail, giving interviews in support of the film.

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick – I’ve seen Frost on the talk show circuit a lot lately, but I was under the impression he was plugging the DVD release of the original interviews- which seems to be timed to coincide with the film’s release.

Comment by Pat

I loved this piece, Pat. A very thoughtful historical perspective. I don’t honestly remember the interviews very well, but I’m sure you’re right. Like every other biopic, which this sort of is, it certainly must have taken dramatic license. I think Frost may have done some consulting on the film, but I really am not sure.I used to watch his show because he had good guests. But I never liked anyone of that era as much as Mike Douglas.

Comment by Marilyn

Thanks, Marilyn.My memories of the interviews are obviously a little cloudy. I find it funny that what I remember best is the potshots people took at David Frost around that time. In “Frost/Nixon,” there’s a point at which Nixon asks Frost how it feels to be well liked. That moment rang particularly false with me.

Comment by Pat




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