Monday, January 26, 2009

Frost/Nixon Review

Frost/Nixon is one of the five movies this year that got nominated for best picture which means that comic book geeks and Pixar fans (I wouldn't call a Pixar fan a geek) hate it, regardless of whether they've seen it or not, because it was one of the five films that was nominated for best picture over the Dark Knight and Wall-E. Well, I've seen Wall-E and loved it and I've seen Dark Knight and can see an argument that it transcends the comic book genre and deserves recognition (although that's been happening for years now), but at the same time, neither of these films are as innovative as Frost/Nixon. Yes, it's true that Frost/Nixon is just a period piece and there have been a million of those honored by the academy whereas there have been very few action films honored by the academy and zero comic book adaptations, but just as the comic book geeks claim that the Academy has a bias towards period pieces, is it possible that the comic book geeks have a bias against period pieces?

Either way, Frost/Nixon is quite a film and stands alongside Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire as the three masterpieces I've seen this year. It stands alongside the most insightful of political films and even stands alongside Rudi, Rocky, and the greatest of sports films even though it isn't about a sport in the athletic sense. Like a great sports film, it is about the intensity of competition against a worthy adversary, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and the price of the risk for entering into the arena (sorry if that last sentence sounded like Bob Costas at commentating about the Olympics).

The arena of competition in this case is public perception as an ex-president and a b-level talk show host are trying to earn critical respectability by making themselves look good throughout the interviews at the expense of the opponent. The way we are glued to our tv screens during the three presidential debates adds merit to the film's theme that public perception is everything. Is Frost/Nixon commenting on whether this our democracy is imperfect, or simply unapologetically stating that politics is a zero-sum game. Nixon calls Frost up on the phone at one point and says something like, "me and you are very much alike, we both want respect, we both are going to take this next interview and get that respect," and Frost responds back "I completely agree, but only one of us can win." It's one of those aha moments, because it's the unstated truth that neither of the two men who have been cordial to each other have acknowledged up to this point.

In one sense, the film is a commentary on the evils of capitalism and that resonates in this time when there are less jobs to go around and we have to compete against our friends and enemies alike for the few jobs that are out there. Both the men are putting on smiles for each other but they both desperately need to sway political opinion in their favor for capitalistic purposes: David Frost is trying to become respected as a journalist and earn bigger endorsement deals and Richard Nixon is trying to elevate his speaking fees as well as earn himself a place back among the Washington elite.

Under the surface, however, there's the suggestion that Nixon (and Frank Langella's characterization leads to this) was just a needy child who just wanted respect. But at the same time, David Frost is a person who needs that level of respect from his peers. Why? I think this was because of the way he responded to being bullied from the drunk phone call. If he didn't have some kind of inferiority complex he wouldn't have pulled an all-nighter to nail his opponent the next day. Again, the two men are mirror images of each other, and in the last line, one (I won't tell you who) suggests to the other that maybe they should have had each other's careers. So there's that duality theme that the Batman series has.

Lastly, I think the film is also a backwards version of that great political story where the outsider comes from nowhere to be the President of the U.S. and lead the country to greatness. Barack Obama had that angle when he was campaigning but many presidents campaign that way. Frost/Nixon is the exact opposite, and I thought that was interesting. Frost/Nixon is the story of a guy who's an outsider whose dream of saving democracy and leading the U.S. forward isn't to become president but to take down an illegitimate US President, which is harder to do, don't you think?

Anyway, an absolutely great picture. I saw this film about 6 weeks after it came out, so I'm sure that those who wanted to see it have already seen it, but it deserves whatever nominations it has, I'll say that.

1 comment:

mB said...

I have yet to see Gran Torino (Clint and me just don't see eye to eye) but Frost/Nixon - especially compared to its Best Pic companions seemed to me the most pedestrian (I blame Howard's direction) of them all. While Morgan's screenplay (and stage play for that matter) is solid, the fact that the high point of the film is a play by play on the actual interviews says something about the film itself. Yes, it discusses politics quite smartly and yes Langella and (especially) Sheen are dead-on as the shamed President and the, as you say, needy performer. But ultimately the film felt too one-note for me.

Just my two cents ;-)