Friday, February 20, 2009

Lost Nixon

Frost-Nixon tells the story of a legendary series of post-Watergate interviews conducted by Australian television personality David Frost, in which Nixon finally breaks down and confessed his crimes to the American people. Frost, who was regarded as far too trifling enough to work in London or New York, finally achieves the credibility he has been seeking, and he is largely credited for finally getting “Tricky Dick” to put his cards on the table.

The film, based on a very successful Broadway play, is superbly acted, well-crafted, and genuinely suspenseful. It is also an utter fabrication. Yes, David Frost did seek out Richard Nixon for a series of interviews. Yes, the interviews generated a lot of interest and skepticism. But Nixon did not confess much of anything, the public ceased to watch the interviews after one airing, and the skeptics were largely validated by the process.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play, evoked a similar fusion of reality and fiction in 2006's The Queen. But that film, a study of Britain’s official response to the death of Princess Diana, required conjecture. We can’t possibly know what conversations took place between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth, so we look to a gifted writer for illumination.

The real Frost-Nixon interviews, on the other hand, were aired before millions of people. You can find them on YouTube. This makes two nominees for best picture that have fictionalized real living characters. But the whitewashing of the title character in Milk simply renders the movie banal. Frost-Nixon seems guilty of a rather more serious crime.

The film is told in a sort of expose format, with the film’s supporting cast adding flavor through what appear to be real news interviews. The documentary style relies upon the presumption that what happens in this film is, in fact, true. This presumption lends a certain confidence to the narrative. Langella is free to portray the often prolix Nixon as an articulate and incisive firebrand, thereby stealing every scene. Frost (whose performance is less successful) is free to vacillate between timidity and arrogance on a dime, in accordance with the plot developments.

***SPOILER ALERT*** While the press has noted the use of a fictional phone conversation between Nixon and Frost prior to their final interview, I found this well within the bounds of artistic liberty. The film’s climax, however, rests on a central conceit, namely the notion that the series of interviews progressed naturally to a gotcha moment when the subject finally turned to Watergate. Not only did the real Watergate portion of the interview fail to deliver any sort of gotcha, it occurred at the beginning of the interview series. ***END SPOILER ALERT***

The fact that I feel compelled to include a spoiler alert regarding a film ostensibly based on a true story is telling. There is no denying Frost-Nixon’s screen worthiness. Howard’s direction and Langella’s performance are alone enough to recommend the film. The supporting cast (particularly Oliver Platt, who apparently only plays journalists) is top notch.

But after the thrill of the film’s final chess-match subsides, something feels amiss. The film is not without a point-of-view, namely that journalists represent our last best chance of unraveling corruption. But the real Frost-Nixon interviews were, at best, an exception to the rule. They made a lot of money for a lot of people (Frost and Nixon in particular), but they did not reveal anything knew about one of America’s most elusive presidents.

That this film pretends to do so seems a bit, I dunno, tricky.


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