Saturday, January 31, 2009

Film Review: Frost v Nixon

Last night I went to see Frost v Nixon with mini me Shane Greer. Those of you who are long time readers of this blog will know that I have a certain fascination with Richard Nixon. I've read every book he has written (and he was a fantastic writer) and also visited to Nixon Library in Yorba Linda in California. While recognising his deep flaws, he was, in many ways, a brilliant politician, tactician and intellect. Those who write him off as a crook and just concentrate on Watergate are missing out on learning more about a President who in many ways was a conservative radical.

Having not seen the play, I entered the cinema with severe doubts as to how the director could generate the momentum for a movie about an interview to get through two hours. I need not have worried. The impossible was achieved. You could watch the film as a Nixon aficionado and not feel patronised, yet if the only thing that you knew about Nixon was that he resigned over Watergate, it wouldn't go above your head. It's a political movie without politics.

The drama of the film revolves around the jousting between the two main protagonists. If I were David Frost, I'm not sure I'd be too happy about how Michael Sheen portrayed me. In fact, I'd say it was Frost who seemed to have just as many character flaws as Nixon.

Indeed, I thought Frank Langella's performance as Nixon was actually quite sympathetic to Nixon and helped us understand his motivations and idiosyncrasies. I had expected the film to portray Nixon as a monster, but it was not like that at all.

Langella certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance. He commanded the screen beautifully and although he didn't try to impersonate Richard Nixon, he managed to convince the audience almost from the first sentence that he was, actually, Nixon reincarnated.

I cannot believe that a single reader of this blog would not enjoy Frost v Nixon. Go and see it!


Simon Gardner said...

“Those who write him [Nixon] off as a crook and just concentrate on Watergate are missing out...”

Actually, I think I’ll just write him off as a crook, thanks. (He was also a very odd personality to have gone into politics - paranoid and introverted.)

Paul Burgin said...

Well having seen the film myself I agree with your assesment, but, sad to say I think Nixon is a classic example for politicians of all parties of where not to go! Clever, tactical, articulate like you say, but his insecurities, as portrayed brilliantly in the telephone scne, is what drove him towards Watergate and damaged his reputation.

Anonymous said...

Seconded. Absolutely brilliant film. I do think it's a bit of a shame that Sheen hasn't got more credit for his portrayal of Frost, which is frankly eerie at times. Really, very very good film though. I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it, although my wonderufl and intelligent PHD writing partner tells me it's a "boy flick", so maybe I'm misguided in that respect.

Anonymous said...

Yes, interesing stuff on Richard Nixon.

Catch David Owen’s article in QJM here:

Oddly, he has much more information on Nixon in the article that he ever did in the book he wrote.

Here is a great what if:

Most political commentators agree that if it had been known that Kennedy was suffering from Addison's and was on steroids he would not have beaten Vice-President Richard Nixon in the very close Presidential election of 1960. Ironically, the American Medical Association's Archives of Surgery in an article published in 1955 entitled ‘Management of Adreno-cortical Insufficiency During Surgery’ explained how a 37-year-old man had been operated on for serious back pain, and was the first Addisonian to survive such traumatic surgery. Only one small newspaper chain published the story in 1961 that this man was President Kennedy.

And then, was he a phenytoin addict or not?

Great stuff. Have not seen the film as yet


Anonymous said...

I was going.

But now I know it's fiction I will give it a miss.

The film, apparently, would have you believe Frost got Nixon to confess.

The truth is that Nixon's people got Nixon to confess in order to revamp his image.

It worked for Nixon, and Frost also gained.

Films about real events and people should stick to the facts.


Unsworth said...

I saw the original Frost interviews with Nixon on the old black and white TV. Tremendous interviewing, founded on meticulous research, and the drama heightened by superb camera-work and direction. Monochrome sometimes brings real clarity.

I felt at times that Nixon revealed great vulnerability whilst 'in conversation' with Frost. But we should also remember his courage in opening the dialogue with China. That said, I'd never have bought a used car from him.

Now, how does Nixon compare with Blair?

Plato said...

I've seen it three times and it gets funnier and more clever each time.

I was a teenage tiddler when this was a news story and have been keen to understand it ever since.

I've watched ATPM at least 20 times and to be honest - this film made sense of the bigger picture without all the journo navel gazing - and I say that as a writer.

It took a while to stop wondering what Tony Blair was doing interviewing Tricky Dicky but it's a great film.

My all time filmodocuflick is Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room. If you haven't seen it then you've missed a huge laugh and corporate jolly jaw dropping hubris.

Chucklenuts said...

There will be no whitewash in the shitehouse.

Plato said...

"Faustus said...
I was going.

But now I know it's fiction I will give it a miss."

Then read the book instead.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Hold on! Hold on! You're trying to work on two different topics here:

1. Was Nixon a crook?
2. Is the film a valid piece of art?

I suggest the answer to both is a resounding "Yes!".

As to [1], I do not see how any liberal democrat, even a Tory, exculpates Nixon from a succession of nasties, all the way from:
* the jobs he did on Voorhis (distributing a -- by 1946 -- conservative Democrat's voting record on pink paper) and on Gahagan Douglas ("pink down to her underwear")
* continuing his Red-baiting on the Joe McCarthy bandwagon (until Ike called a halt; and sent the poacher in to be game-keeper)
* authorising the "Enemies List" and its accompanying dirty-tricks (which led directly to Watergate).

As for [2], you identify two literary constructs with the characters whose names they share. Now, I've blogged this before, and hesitate to repeat myself.

What this drama comprises is the collision of two great vanities. Cosmo Landesman (who rated this a five-star movie) concluded:
Never mind Nixon, it’s this rehabilitation of Frost that bothers me. Here is a man who has spent nearly 50 years sucking up to the rich, the famous and the powerful, and now, thanks to this film, he will go down in history as the great inquisitor who got the truth out of Richard Nixon. Rarely has bad history become the basis of such a great film.

I demur. I saw a decent, domestic drama, played out in hotel-rooms and offices.

Michael Sheen conveys the essentially-vapid core of "Frost". He is precisely what his Cambridge Footlights contemporaries saw and scorned in the original: full of himself and bonhomie, superficial, exploitative, a shallow crowd-pleaser. Only when "Nixon"'rouses him with a late-night drunken telephone call, does this "Frost" dynamise himself -- and, inevitably, stumble on the dramatic McGuffin that unlocks and undoes Nixon in the final interview.

Frank Langella, as "Nixon", is a monster: shambling, crude, fleshy, grasping, in decay and decline, trapped on the San Clemente shore, doomed to formulaic anecdotes at conventions of Texan orthodontists, wanting to return East to rehabilitation and the main event. He is surrounded by pathetic reminders: the presidential seal on his crockery and on the blazers of his household staff. His final collapse is Euripidean: even then, he is incapable of fully voicing repentance, incapable of rising above the subjective, or of much above his personal loss:

I let them down. I let down my friends, I let down my country, and worst of all I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now they think; 'Oh it's all too corrupt and the rest'. Yeah... I let the American people down. And I'm gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over.

The two closing scenes are instructive. One involves a long lingering exchange of meaningful gaze between the two main characters. "Frost" is not showing pity here, but finding an element of self-recognition in the defeated, deflated old trickster. Then comes the tawdry little moment of "Frost" in a final visit to the ironically-named La Casa Pacifica, and the presentation of a gift: a pair of Italian shoes.

At no point did I assume I was watching anything approaching real life here: it was at best a fair interpretation. Yet, it was a good drama. I no more conflate "Nixon" with the real man than I do the 1605 "Macbeth" with an RĂ­ Ruadh of 1040-1056. And for the same reasons.

Yak40 said...

known that Kennedy was suffering from Addison's and was on steroids he would not have beaten Vice-President Richard Nixon in the very close Presidential election of 1960.

Not to mention Cook County Illinois & Mayor Daley of Chicago who delivered the necessary votes for JFK to win. Daley Jr. tried in 2000 for The Goracle and failed but Chicago won again in 2008.

Anonymous said...

Saw it on opening night and loved it. Going to see it again with different friends next week. Deserves it's nominations and agree that Langhella was brilliant. I read about an interview with him in which he said that it's hard for him to let go of the "character" and will probably have him with him for the rest of his life.

Glyn Davies said...

Seen it. Agree it was a good film. Langella was brilliant. But I couldn't see Frost without seeing Blair.

Martin S said...

My Aunt knew Richard Nixon.

She was -although British- heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement and was given $1,000,000 by Nixon (one of his aides handled the details) for a community centre for black Americans.

When Watergate blew up she said: "I know he did wrong, but I can't help thinking of the good he did for our community."

Oldrightie said...

Nixon and Brown, two cheeks of the same ar*e!
Insomnia about my future pension shortfalls thanks to Labour! Also a very nice claret! said...

I went with my wife and three friends, all of whom don't really take an interest in politics, but we all liked it. Enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire even more, mind, but yes, Frost Nixon is very good and the guy who played Nixon in it was incredible.

Anonymous said...

Iwas studying and working in America during Nixon's presidency. Very interesting period particularly after Watergate breakin became public and Washington Post and Bob Woodward's colums were essential reading in our campus. My American friends carried the badge which said 'Impeach RMN'. RMN -Richard Milhouse Nixon.

Nixon had two gate keepers- Haldeman and Ehrlichmann. Campbell at10 Downing street comes to mind recollecting their thuggish behaviour and anything they do is the law. They were the ones who were in the thick of recruiting the 'plumbers' who broke into Watergate building.

Nixon had a brilliant grasp of geopolitics so good that even Kissinger said he learnt a lot from Nixon. His brilliant handling of Russians during the Yom Kippur war when they were threatening to nuke Israel, his acceptance of China as emerging power and his secret mission to see Mao to shorten the Vienam war and recognition of China showed his grasp of world politics. I do not want to compare him Blair, an empty showman or Brown a deeply cynical self-centered politician.
We should remember that he was Eisenhower's VP and Eisenhower was a sick person in the latter half of his presidency. Nixon the VP and John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state had to shoulder the governing burden. He understood the Russians well. Compared to him Kennedy was all glamour and dynastic. It was Johnson who set right the wrongs of Blacks. Obama should thank Johnson more than the Kennedy dynasty.

Nixon was a deeply flawed person. His choice of VP, Spirow Agnew who later resigned shows how Nixon trusted his cronies. Gerald Ford was a safe choice as the VP, but was far too thick. President Johnson about Gerald Ford :" he can't f**k and chew at the same time!"

Would I trust Nixon as my leader? NO. Would I consult him on matters of geopolitics? Definitely YES.

PhilC said...

Am going to see it Iain and very much looking forward to it.
I think Nixon fascinates those on the left as much as those on the right.
For some, the devil on earth, for others, greatness lost.
Now: are you going to see Milk and if so can we have a review.

OBC News said...

Strangely, even having read several very positive reviews such as this, the whole idea of the film STILL seems so stultifyingly boring to me that I'm likely to wait a good long time before seeing it (no doubt as a download in about 3 years' time). But at least I know I'll probably enjoy it when that day finally comes.