Thursday, October 16, 2008
We’re only two days into the London Film Festival, which kicked off last night with the world première of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. I highly doubt I’ll manage more than occasional posts on the fest’s goodies, what with juggling my weekly reviewing responsibilities at the same time and being, in general, a lazy bugger. But before the maelstrom really gets going, I’ll grab this chance to alert you to some early festival grades (in the sidebar) and express a fair degree of pleasant surprise on the opening night choice. Though I suspect this view will be a minority one, Frost/Nixon is to my mind a better film than The Queen (from the same writer/star team, Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen) and probably Howard’s best since Ransom, with a galvanic performance from Frank Langella that deserves serious awards consideration. Langella’s work and certain aspects of Howard’s direction overcame some, if not all, of my doubts about the material, adapted from Morgan’s play about the 1977 set of TV interviews between the ex-president and former/future BBC talk-show host David Frost. I have to say this whole growing Morgan oeuvre – he’s tackling David Peace’s terrific football novel The Damned United next, again with Sheen – is beset for me by a pretty basic cramping of imagination. I want everyone involved to take more creative leaps, to gamble on richer portraits and bolder psychology than this pedantic adherence to the record, give or take Morgan’s tweaking of timeframes, usually gets them. (Casting Natalie Portman as a Tudor hottie does not, for the record, count as a creative leap.) For its first half Frost/Nixon has all the same problems as The Queen, viz. the pantomime quality of the supporting cast, the antsy staging, the wishy-washy, televisual look. (What with this, Edtv, and the pivotal sequence in Ransom, it’s not hard to see that Howard’s more comfortable around cathode ray tubes than he ever has been behind a movie camera.) But the closer it gets to the crux of the matter – specifically the interrogation on Watergate – the more I found myself pulled in to this blustery prize-fight, and the more it seemed to make sense in its new medium.
Sheen spins a shrewd, funny Frost impression that’s no more nor less than his Tony Blair – if there’s significant overlap between the performances, you could argue for a fair bit of common ground between those two slippery men in the first place. Better, Langella’s lurching, crafty Nixon, ready to drone his way expansively out of any tough line of questioning, becomes a genuinely hypnotic site of facial drama when Frost and Howard start to probe in earnest. I actually became grateful for Howard’s doggedly straightforward pacing, the long-withheld close-up, slowly closing in, and preserving the minute vacillations of a half-mythic figure (barely a man) deciding how far he will allow himself to go, or to atone. Through a curious paradox it is pure theatre but better than theatre, for the reasons Morgan himself explores – the supposedly “reductive” power of that close-up, achieving a more natural climax on film than it can ever have done blown up on screens at the rear of the stage, is in fact the very opposite of reductive here. At this juncture and elsewhere, the script still falls short on cogent analysis – Morgan resorts to a fairly hokey late-night phone call to force his protagonists into a wary complicity, as if they were auditioning for a Michael Mann face-off, like Pacino and Crowe in The Insider, or Ali and George Foreman. (Or perhaps Liz and that stag.) Langella is utterly spellbinding in the last interview session. Almost fittingly, the second it ends the movie grinds to a resounding halt, and the coda is pure padding, ratcheting proceedings right back down to their earlier mediocrity. Nonetheless, I’ll give Morgan and Howard credit here for zeroing in on a historic moment, patiently establishing its importance, and confidently gearing up to show it, where Morgan and Frears never even seemed to decide what their equivalent moment was. B–