Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bigger Screen, Smaller Suspense: Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard’s best film, Apollo 13, is a reminder that suspense isn’t beholden to surprise. Prior to seeing the film upon its release in 1995, I was familiar enough with the real-life details of the titular 1970 Moon mission gone awry to know that the movie would end more or less happily, but I’ll be damned if that blunted the impact. And so it’s been ever since. No matter how many times I watch Apollo 13 – and it’s probably been a half-dozen by now – it never fails to hook me: the gut-wrenching radio silence that marks the spacecraft’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere seems to grow longer and more perilous upon each viewing. How exactly Howard achieves this magical effect, I’m still not quite sure, but I do know that the voodoo of Apollo 13 is sorely lacking in Howard’s latest picture, Frost/Nixon.

Whereas Apollo 13 transcends history, Frost/Nixon is undone by it. Written by Peter Morgan, based on his own stage play, Frost/Nixon requires its audience to be both educated and unaware. For the film to have its most profound impact, the audience must be fully familiar with the contempt many Americans held for Richard M Nixon by the end of his presidency, while remaining ignorant of the places David Frost took Nixon in their famous interview turned quasi-confessional of 1977. Without this balance, Frost/Nixon can entertain, certainly, but it would be difficult for it to enthrall. By moving from stage to screen, Frost/Nixon must play by different rules, the most significant of which is that its dramatization must be more compelling than the real-life footage. And in this respect, Howard’s film comes up just short.

The chief error of Frost/Nixon is that its principle drama hangs on the proceedings of the interviews themselves, which in this day and age are just a YouTube visit or a DVD rental away. Expectedly, the screenplay looks to broaden the story by giving us the behind-the-scenes tale of Frost’s Herculean efforts just to make the interviews happen. But the unfortunate side-effect is that Frost/Nixon is rendered a personal battle between interviewer and subject, thus undermining the notion that their battle royale was in fact something more: America vs. Nixon. This would all be fine and good if the movie cast Frost in the role of Rocky Balboa. But when Frost should be doing the interviewer’s equivalent of punching slabs of meat with the determination of the underdog, he’s instead seen gallivanting about with the overconfidence of Apollo Creed. The obviously manufactured device in which Frost rallies at the 11th hour to knuckle down and do his homework doesn’t provide the adrenaline rush that’s intended. Instead it inspires the question: What took him so long?

With Frost seemingly disinterested, the stakes of Howard’s drama are made small – unless, of course, you know your history and understand how enormous the stakes really were. Of course, if you know that, you most likely also know how the Frost-Nixon interview went down. There’s the rub. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their stage roles and bring vibrancy to their respective portrayals of the interviewer and the stonewaller, but the cinematic format is working against them. On stage, the audience feeds on the visceral sensation of being there, while also getting to self-edit the action by determining where to place one’s focus. (When the questions get tough, do you watch the prosecutor or the defendant?) But in film form, Frost/Nixon’s dramatizations of the interviews provide no change in the viewing experience from the readily available archival footage, making comparisons inevitable. Why study the sweaty face of Langella’s Nixon as he buckles under pressure when one could just as easily watch the real thing?

Though not as confined as Doubt, Frost/Nixon suffers similar problems in its liberation (or lack thereof) from the stage. The primary disappointment is that Howard finds no way to illustrate America’s discontentment with Nixon other than filtering it through the remarks of a single character, Sam Rockwell’s James Reston Jr, one of Frost’s researchers. Even worse, most of the anti-Nixon sentiment is delivered via lazy talking-head interviews – not with the real Reston, let’s be clear, but with Rockwell’s Reston. It’s a violation of the show-don’t-tell rule of screenwriting to the nth degree, and Howard’s adaptation is dominated by the device. Likewise, the only way Howard finds to portray the shifting position of advantage in the Frost-Nixon interview is to cut to melodramatic reaction shots from members of each man’s support team – groans when points are lost, nods of approval when points are won.

Howard is a better director than this, but he very rarely shows it here. His best decision is to shoot much of the non-interview footage at Nixon’s actual ocean-view estate in San Clemente, California. In numerous exterior shots, Nixon is the sole obstacle between the audience and the Pacific, illustrating just how far the president has gone from his preferred place on the East Coast, in the middle of it all, in the action. His shame-inspired exile took him literally to the end of the earth, where he gazes into the nothingness, wondering where everything went. These shots, more than any concoction of the screenplay, best demonstrate how Nixon arrived at his interview with Frost knowing that he’d have to overcome his pride and assume some sort of repentant position if he was ever to rejoin society.

Along those lines, Frost/Nixon paints a mostly sympathetic picture of Nixon while still confronting some of his less attractive qualities, including a fabricated drunk-dial of Frost’s hotel room. Morgan and Howard suggest that Nixon was ready to suffer a knockout blow from Frost, but that he wanted to go down to a heavyweight’s hook and perhaps antagonized his interviewer until the softball-tosser (more Larry King than Mike Wallace) rose to the occasion. It’s an interesting interpretation, but it takes a backseat to the excitement of the interviews themselves. Which makes it all the more curious that Howard fails to capitalize on the broadcast’s allure: According to Reston, Frost’s victory wasn’t obvious until he watched the footage on TV and realized that the close-up provided an even deeper confession than Nixon ever managed in words. How strange it is then that rather than reserving his close-ups for Nixon’s reaction shots, Howard frames the majority of his film so tightly that I often felt like I was sitting in the front row. Frost/Nixon may put us close to the entertainment, but we’re farther away from the historical drama.


Richard Bellamy said...

I agree with your review. Something was lacking here - as with "Doubt." The film version needs to be more visual, more cinematic than the play in order to be worth making a film version of a play. Frankly, I wish filmmakers would steer away from film versions of plays. Like remakes - this simply cuts down the number of new and original stories that are released.

I enjoyed "Frost/Nixon" well enough though it was didactic more than dramatic.

Anonymous said...

I was struck by something you said:

With Frost seemingly disinterested, the stakes of Howard’s drama are made small – unless, of course, you know your history and understand how enormous the stakes really were.

In the end, Nixon rehabilitated his image to such an extent that he's been hailed as a statesman. What were the stakes exactly then? That Nixon's repentance would lead to his redemption? If so, Frost and history lost, and dirty tricksters learned how to game the system so that they could get away with far greater crimes than Nixon committed and stay in office until the not-so-bitter end.

Jason Bellamy said...

Marilyn –

If I’m correct, I see two things here: a general political observation and then a question about the art. I wouldn’t refute your political observation, but I’ll try to clarify on the art, which of course requires some actual historical context:

Prior to the interview with Frost, Nixon had been elusive. At the time of his resignation, much of the smoking-gun information about Watergate hadn’t come to light. So here was this guy in hiding, who Frost pursued, not the other way around. (Nixon was working on his memoirs, but it wasn’t like he was selling his exclusive interview to the highest bidder, as is done now.)

So “Frost/Nixon” suggests, and I presume this is accurate, that there was a sense that this might be the only time that Nixon might ever come of his bunker to speak for a national audience. So the stakes were that if Nixon “exonerated himself” that would be “the biggest crime of all.” (I think that’s how it’s put in the film.) The Frost team felt they had to get the win. And, more or less, they did. Though in Howard’s film, it seems a more important win for Frost himself than for a country that was desperate to get some kind of confession.

Having said that about the art, let me get back to your astute political observation with a societal observation: In this country, Time + Contriteness = Forgiveness. I don’t think Nixon was exactly contrite, but he at least leaned in that direction. So if you’re offended by Nixon’s ultimate image, you might say that Frost won the battle and lost the war. On the other hand, let’s look at someone like O.J. Simpson. I think many people were happy to see him wasting away, and now he’s off to jail to waste away some more. But I think many would trade Simpson’s current misery to hear him say, “Yep, I did it.” Saying as much would gain him some sympathy, I’m sure. But there’d be some catharsis.

At the time of the Frost-Nixon interviews, I was weeks old. But my sense is that much of America appreciated the catharsis of Nixon’s quasi-confession, even if long-term it helped open the door to his redemption. Other thoughts, anyone?

T.S. said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the review – I too was greatly let down by the film, and I think your comments related to Apollo 13 help me put my own finger on why I was so tremendously disappointed. I'll continue to swear that if Ron Howard's name had not been present in the opening credits, and I had not known he was involved going in, I would not have thought he was behind the camera. Not that I hold him as some pinnacle of directing prowess by any means, but Frost/Nixon just feels so pedestrian compared to the good work with a bend toward history that Howard has accomplished in the past.

mB said...

I think "pedestrian" is a good word. I have no idea how someone could watch this movie and praise Howard's direction - it feels so stale and at times mildly in the way of Morgan's script and the performances.