Best Picture Part 2: Frost/Nixon

Part Two of a Five Part series on the Best Picture Nominees.

Not that you asked, but I am nearly twenty five years old. I was born in 1984, seven years after the series of interviews of Richard Nixon by David Frost. Nixon is fully the past for me- he's a pop-culture character, he's jowls and double peace signs getting into a helicopter, he's not a crook. I understand the importance of his administration, the near-impeachment, the resignation, the Watergate scandal.

But maybe because I didn't live through it, my reaction to Frost/Nixon is: "meh." It's great that we finally get to see a fictional portrayal of Nixon admit that he made mistakes, and it's certainly nice that the real Nixon did as much in the real thing more than thirty years ago, but that doesn't really make for an outstanding film.

Ron Howard's by-the-numbers, stagy (based on a play), and laregly anticlimactic drama is certainly professional, flashy, and well-acted. But even with the inclusion in various critical lists and guild nominations, and its de facto inclusion in the final five for the Best Picture honor, it's not pulled in a single noteworthy award or top honor- it's an also-ran. Everybody seems to feel like we need to include Frost/Nixon for the same reasons that we need to teach History class in high school.

My question: do we? (Need to include Frost/Nixon in awards season, I mean. I know we need to teach History.)

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In an interesting moment of cultural cross-promotion, the real life David Frost has popped up on talkshows promoting the sale of a DVD containing the real life interviews that the play, Frost/Nixon, and its film adaptation were drawn from. It makes for an obvious question: why not just watch the real thing?

Or to put it another way: what does Peter Morgan's (and by extension, Ron Howard's) Frost/Nixon add to history?

The answer: not much, based on the movie.

The cast, of course, is winning: Michael Sheen and Frank Langella do very capable jobs as the intrepid interviewer seeking to prove his journalist chops and the disgraced president spinning to save any sort of legacy. (Good thing they had plenty of tape to study). Matthew Macfayden is solid as Frost's producer, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell (Whoo! Sam Rockwell!) provide some comic relief as a pair of researchers. Kevin Bacon ably plays Nixon's loyal bodyman, and Rebecca Hall (Whoo!  Rebecca Hall!) even shows up as Frost's support and eye-candy.

Ron Howard retains the ability to build to profound moments, Hans Zimmer's score is proficiently cinematic, the story is peppered with some interviews of the minor characters, talking about the events sometime later as if they knew how important they would be...

It's certainly a solid job, all around. But why was it hard to stay awake?

Maybe because there are precious few moments that tell us anything we didn't already know. The film is torn between a desire to highlight what it clearly finds a significant moment in American history and a desire to humanize Nixon into a man neither consciously villainous nor ignorantly assured of the righteousness of his actions. Langella certainly deserves plenty of credit for embodying a man largely through personality and manner, rather than focusing on any of the quirks that we immediately think of when we hear the name.

But Frost/Nixon can't have it both ways: beyond the normal movie-clues that we're witnessing is important with a capital "I," it makes the conscious decisions to inflate them more than the original play.

My biggest complaint was those cutaway interviews: like an episode of The Office, it wasn't clear when those interviews occured, who was conducting them, or why Frost and Nixon did not appear giving them. But the supporting players were more than happy to sit down at an unspecified point (none of them appeared much older than they did in the story) and pontificate- even Rebecca Hall's character, a girlfriend that stays with Frost during his time in California but is largely not privvy to the preparations for the interviews, as far as we can see.

In short, who cares? As you'll see in my writeup of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, I'm quickly developing a pet peeve for stories that are weighed down by unnecessary framing devices- let at tale speak for itself, from beginning to end. At least the Button device makes it clear the way in which the story is being related to us- these cutaways in Frost/Nixon are just confusing, unexplained moments to hit us in the face with the things the movie would like us to know are dramatic: Frost's hidden funding problems, Nixon's silence on the helicopter ride after resigning.

I did sort of enjoy the most dramatic non-interview moment in the film: Nixon drunkenly places a phone call to Frost, late at night, and talks about how they both feel the desire to succeed because they come from the low class.

It's a human moment, a dramatic speech, and Langella nails it. Later, Sheen mentions the phone call in passing, and Nixon looks troubled and flustered, as if he didn't recall it. Great element, I'm thinking- it added to the story, and I'm not concerned whether it happened in real life or not.

But at the very end, in case you weren't clear that that moment was Important and Dramatic, Nixon's last question to Frost is something along the lines of "Did I really call you that night?" Thanks, Frost/Nixon. I had really forgotten that bit of the film from an hour ago. Glad you reminded me how clever you are.

In conclusion, let's let my man Sam Rockwell, speaking in one the many cutaways in which someone analyzes the events of the film for us, ironically explicate my problem with Frost/Nixon as a whole:

"You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, trenches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot....David [Frost] had succeeded on that final day, in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get; Richard Nixon's face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat. The rest of the project and its failings would not only be forgotten, they would totally cease to exist."

Man, good thing I just watched all that unfold, if it was that important. Frost/Nixon, in the time it took from the screen to awards season, got the same treatment- its failings ceased to exist in the shadow of the subject matter (which many people in this country not born in the eighties remember personally).

So if I were ever asked for a pullquote about Frost/Nixon, I'd have to go with "Best episode of The American Experience* ever!"

*It's a documentary show on PBS. I watch a lot of PBS, and I'm proud of it, but not in an annoying, hipster, anti-establishment way.

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