Sunday, February 1, 2009

Flick Crit: Frost/Nixon

I have clear memories of watching President Richard Nixon's resignation speech live in '74. Just as we had watched Nixon congratulating Neil Armstrong after his walk on the moon in '69. Tricky had a real sense of occasion as we also saw when he joined Mao Zedong on the Great Wall of China whilst secretly waging war in Cambodia. For the anti-Vietnam War generation, these interviews with David Frost were supposed to nail him. He owed an apology for Watergate, pure and simple.

Despite its straightforward narrative style Frost/Nixon is not simple. Neither adversary is presented one dimensionally. Nixon is not pure evil nor is Frost a completely naive political novice.

This film is supposed to be the story behind their on-camera clash. Like all historical dramas, it is problematic and fiction of course. With David Frost at the nadir of his media career, he needed a confession about Watergate from the disgraced President if he was to resurrect himself. Above all he had to make the interviews a winner as he had staked his own financial future on the project. Ironically, Nixon is portrayed as agreeing to the interviews more for money than from his obvious desire for some kind of public rehabilitation. On top of that his love of political combat is presented as a key motivation.

In the acting bout, Frank Langella's Nixon wins on points over Michael Sheen's Frost. Director Ron Howard achieves a fine balance between mimicry and characterisation. Masterly use of physical resemblance, voice and mannerism creates tiny moments when each actor is completely cloaked in his character. This is acting of the finest quality, not mere impersonation.

Richard Nixon was a giant and an enigma. His policy of détente with both the USSR and Mao's China was bold and unprecedented. His duplicitous role in widening the Indo-china conflict was abhorrent. His approach to his domestic enemies was both paranoid and criminal. It culminated in his forced resignation over the cover-up of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.

The film concludes with Nixon confiding to Frost that he wished he liked people, a strange weakness in a politician. He was a great hater. Disputes as to the accuracy of the screenplay are raging. However, the original interviews are an historical source that is only rivaled by the incriminating tapes from the Oval Office. Nixon gave a long-winded answer as to why he allowed the taping and didn't destroy them. The real reason was probably a three letter word: ego. Expletive deleted.

Frost/Nixon reminds us that there was more to this flawed man than his enemies often recognised. Visit the official website for more on this battle of egos.

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