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Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

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Movies that are based real political events haven't proved too popular at the box office. People seem to be so overloaded with it on the news and in every day life that they don't want to pay to see more of it in a cinema. You can't really blame people, but it's often a shame since a lot of these movies are very worthy of the time and money.

That seems to be mainly the case with movies based on the war in Iraq (examples of financially disappointing/failed movies being Lions for Lambs, Rendition and W., to name but a few) and those based on political events past seem to be popular enough. Frost/Nixon is one of those – a film about one of the most watched TV interviews in history.

It was a difficult thing to get right on film, but director Ron Howard, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote the stage play of the event), and particularly the lead performers make this captivating, riveting stuff that should go unmatched in tension for quite a while in the cinema calendar.

Frost/Nixon is a film that dramatizes the famous interviews between former US President Richard Nixon and TV presenter and interviewer David Frost. It examines Frost's determination to get the interview scheduled, from coming up with the idea right up to the actual interviews themselves. It shows the way in which the two men play off of one another in a tense battle of intellect, charm, and wit.

What is always going to give a film like this a sense of credibility is that it's based on a true story – and everybody knows for a fact that it was. This is not one of those films where the director gives you with a subtitle at the beginning, "based on true events," and general audiences usually just have to take their word for it.

This is about one of the most famous interviews, one of the most famous events, ever aired on television. Although the film does dramatize it to make it more exciting and tense to watch, the truth behind it still gives it a backbone of credibility.

What's strange about the film is that even though it's sold in the advertisements as being only about the interviews themselves — and thankfully that is what it is built up to and kept at the heart of it — there's about 30-40 minutes beforehand of examination of what it's like to work in television. It's very reminiscent of the 1976 film Network in that way.

It shows Frost as the beloved talk show host and TV presenter that he was and it takes us through the trouble, money and effort it took on everybody's part, but particularly Frost's, to actually get this interview set up and functioning the way it should. That's even before Frost or Nixon have spoken word one of the first interview. It starts off as a strangely realistic portrayal of TV life and transcends into one of the tensest verbal sparring sessions portrayed on film in a very long time.

What makes Frost/Nixon feel as believable as it does, and what makes it feel so real, is the performances of Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon, both of whom played the parts in the stage play. Both are outstanding, not just portraying these men, but also embodying them.

Reflective of the people they're portraying, Sheen and Langella seem to be battling against each other at who can be more convincing in their respective roles; they both have the voices and the facial expressions spot-on, they walk the same, they act the same and, most importantly, they simply are the same. When you get past the point of getting used to these actors as the titled people, you almost completely forget that these are not the actual people portraying themselves, but simply actors giving performances like any other.

As with most, if not all of the films that portray historical events, they do play around with the facts, taking liberties with what actually happened and amping things up to a higher level to increase the drama. That's something to be expected; as we all know life isn't as exciting as we're led to believe in the movies and on TV. Sometimes it's what you could describe as mundane when compared to what we're shown on-screen.

Director Ron Howard, who's control of mood and tension is astounding here, and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who's crafted a sharp and succinct screenplay, make it so believable and detailed that you just don't care. The best of these movies make you truly believe in what's happening on screen, even if you know otherwise. Frost/Nixon does that in spades.

What the film does, thankfully, is paint a picture of Nixon not simply as a bad man because the things that he did wrong, it fleshes him out into — and reminds us that he was — a human being like the rest of us. It reminds us that this is a man, not some sort of god who can do no wrong; a man who made some grave mistakes and some wrongdoings. His very confession and apology in the latter part of that famous interview gave the American people not only vindication, but also a chance to see him as a real person.

Frost starts off out of his depth with Nixon, being significantly less brazen and much more unwilling to delve into the thick of things because of the very fact of who he's interviewing. By the last part of the interview, he's realises he's going to have to pull on the gloves and play just as tough as Nixon. The film builds and builds with this brilliantly conceived chair-clawing tension.

It’s a relief that the film doesn't dwell on anything unimportant (Howard rightly chooses only to show the parts of the interviews which are crucial; the real interviews lasted six hours) and therefore doesn't drag itself out into an unnecessarily long runtime, coming in at a tidy and concise two hours. Everything means something; it has a purpose in the overall thematic telling of the story.

There's a great admiration to be had for a film that doesn't dilly-dally, one that gets to the point, and puts it across as powerfully, tensely, and emotionally as this one does. The original interviews and the surrounding story of Nixon and his unique resignation as President of the United States is a tale worth telling. Everyone involved here does it thorough justice. This is a tense, weighty, powerful film that is as technically brilliant as it is purely enjoyable.

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About Ross Miller

  • I should see the flicker but the only thing holding me back is that I saw/remember the actual interviews.

    A good biopic type thing I hear. For those on the wrong side of 50… hehe


  • I am old enuf to remember when Nixon was considered a ‘bad’ president…