Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frost/Nixon

The interviews depicted in Frost/Nixon are famous for finally answering questions and addressing issues that weighed on the minds of Americans since Watergate. What the movie focuses on, though, is the behind-the-scenes preparations that brought two men together in a mental chess game. No, not a chess game - more like a boxing match. In fact, the whole film seems to parallel one of the most famous sports films of all time, Rocky. Actually, it's more like Rocky III. In one corner, we have the underdog: flashy British celebrity chat-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), high on success and easy celebrity but looking to shed his lightweight reputation. In the other corner is the heavyweight champ: calculating and evasive former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), eager to establish a legacy focused on his successes rather than the scandal that brought him down. The two circle each other for quite a while, prepping for the interviews. Our underdog goes through challenges finding backing for the project and is under constant pressure to research every aspect of his subject's life - the journalistic equivalent of training in the snow and hauling timber. Meanwhile, Nixon has his own aids who expect softballs but prepare for the worst - A political version of Ivan Drago's high-tech training lab. When the two finally meet, the heavyweight just toys with his challenger, running down the clock. Can the challenger muster his courage and his last ounce of strength to defeat the champ?

The real theme of the film, aside from the political implications, is the power of media. Nixon's strength is his nimble mind and analytical nature, but ever since his debates with John F. Kennedy, he is fully aware of his complete lack of on-screen charisma. Frost may be a lightweight, but he understands the power of television, fully aware of how to work the medium to his advantage. He is comfortable and confident on screen and Nixon underestimates him because of this. I think that what the film is saying is that good public image is as important to a politician's success as positive actions. Nixon had neither and his downfall was inevitable.

Frost/Nixon is up for five Academy Awards: Best Actor (Langella), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture. Mickey Rourke's win seems like a sure thing this year, so Langella is out of luck. The editing is nothing too flashy and long-time readers know how I feel about Opie's directing, so I can't in good conscience pick them to win. Frost/Nixon was based on a play and transcends its origins into something naturally cinematic, so it might have a chance for Adapted Screenplay, but up against three better-received Best Picture contenders those chances are slim. Like Milk, Frost/Nixon uses historical events to make a statement about modern issues, but I think voters will want to go with something less cynical and more uplifting than a film about holding a scandal-plagued former President accountable for his wrongdoings.

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