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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Frost/Nixon: The ModFab Review

Universal Pictures (122 Minutes)
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Ron Howard

The facts of history -- cold, unyielding, inescapable -- melt into fiction with surprising fluency in Frost/Nixon, an indisputably superb entertainment with a dubious claim to veritas. Sure, 'dramatic license' may be a minor quibble in our reality-show age, but I found myself puzzling for days over the film's fast-and-loose approach to truth. The question of its entertainment value is far less interesting, I think, that what it communicates about the writing (and re-writing) of history in the movies.

I knew what I was in for; I'd seen the award-winning play on Broadway in 2007, where the film's two stars, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, first portrayed the deposed U.S. President and his adversarial television interviewer. Frost/Nixon is a stunning examination of the media's role in American political development; it resonates for older audiences as a delayed schadenfreude regarding Richard Milhouse Nixon, while younger audiences discover the seeds of our media-soaked culture, sprung like Athena from the head of Zeus. Or Alien.

The screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) has a quasi-researched feel, mixing the facts of the Frost-Nixon interviews -- a pitched battle of wills between the playboy talk-show host and the corrupt former President -- with some dramatic, em, additions. Most egregious is an 11th-hour drunken phone call, purportedly made by Nixon to Frost on the eve of their on-camera discussion of Watergate. It is a dazzling scene, a show of force and skill for Langella...in short, it is a scene that probably gets you an Oscar nomination. But it's also a lie. And squeezed, as it is, between the true-history scandals and torments of Nixon's actual crimes, it's a moment that muddies the impulses and reasonings of its characters...serving the drama, perhaps, but not the message. Why are these breaches important enough to take up my entire review? Because these flights of fancy take place in a morality tale, a parable about the moral necessity for truthfulness. Frost/Nixon is, ultimately, a con game about honesty, a devious deceit about finding the truth.

Not that this will hurt the film at the box office, or at the Oscars. Director Ron Howard similarly fudged the details in his award-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind, but it didn't matter one iota to its adoring fans. Howard uses many of the same elements to create glamor in Frost/Nixon; luxurious in its cinematography and bursting with righteous anger, the film exhales a popcorn-friendly playfulness and an easy accessibility. And with performances like Langella and Sheen's -- not to mention head-turning supporting work by Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell -- only the most detail-driven audiences will object to the screenplay's indulgences. At the screening I attended, the audience gave the film a long ovation; my (very cinematically astute) companion immediately predicted it would win Best Picture.

Bully for that. But I still have a nagging buzz in my ear, an irritating aftertaste that something's not quite right. I guess I'm concerned with younger generations (most under the age of 40) who didn't experience Nixon's fall from grace in the 70's, and who may decide to take Frost/Nixon at its word. Like The New World, W. and other recent efforts that mine our past (and mix it with fantasy), there's a danger in blurring the history lesson too far. Frost/Nixon is a well-made, suspenseful drama. And that, we should be clear, is all it is.
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Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Excellent points, ModFab. Unless some other quintessential piece of real historical drama comes along, those who don't have the moxie to check out what really occurred will take "Frost/Nixon" at its word. It's the same issue I had with the stage play.

12/10/08, 10:07 AM  

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