Saturday, 24 January 2009

[131] Frost/Nixon: Under-Representing History and Politics

The problem with Frost/Nixon is that it is so far removed from history and reality that its politics are mollified and its themes are muddled. this could be due to its 'Chinese Whispers' adaptation approach (history -> televised interview -> play -> film), or to the mostly pleasant, if neutralised, Hollywood sheen provided by Ron Howard.

The film tells the story of the famed, ground-breaking television interview between David Frost and controversial American president Richard Nixon. Frost, a low-brow television host in the film's eyes, takes on the momentous task of courting and questioning Nixon, in the face of all sense, in order to attract viewing numbers and chase his dwindling celebrity. The film, like the play before it, builds up this central rivalry, dropping lexical references to fencing, pugilism and debate. In the process, Frost swots up, and nails Nixon after hours of potentially embarrassing exonerating material, provoking an outburst and confession.

My background isn't political or deeply historical, so it is not my place to speak with any certainty or authority about the dramatic license taken or misrepresentation made in the film. Thankfully, those more informed have written on this before, at great length (Elizabeth Drew at the Huffington Post, and David Edelstein at New York Magazine). However, even with these tweaks and embellishments, Frost/Nixon still feels, to me, to be crucially flawed. It is only really in the powerful central performances from Frank Langella and Michael Sheen that the film's true quality resides.

My two main issues can be described as involving Education and Communication. The film's focus material is both political and historical in nature, yet is suitably removed from the experience of the cinema-going public that common knowledge of the complicated world of 1960s-1970s American politics is not to be expected.

In writing the play and creating the film, writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard have taken the 'tone down and simplify' approach; as such, political context is minimised in favour of dramatic devices and performance. The film opens with a flurry of archive footage and audio recordings, but for the majority of the action, history is hemmed in, and only referenced in relation to the acts on screen.

Once the interview is underway, and the research team start their quest to 'topple' Nixon, statistics are thrown out and names are dropped with a simple disregard for the basic educational worth of the story at hand. Frost/Nixon doesn't expect or require prior knowledge of Nixon's presidency, but what can be gleaned from watching the film is shallow at best. That is not even to say that the film is biased or partisan - it is simply not bothered with matters such as political history or even political advocacy.

This lack of context and skewed focus harms the supporting characters in this two-horse race. As this is a historical drama, there is an effort to evoke the real people in the film, an attempt to overcome the forgetful passing of time. However, these living, breathing sources have been reduced to stereotypical essences. Cue Toby Jones as the nasal, stuck up, germ-conscious hawker Swifty Lezar; in real life a talent agent for Bogart, Bacall, Cher, Hemingway, Madonna, Nabokov - here is merely an irritating, one-note cameo.

Equally, journalist and writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) is crystallised into a whining, soap-box liberal, and Oliver Platt's Bob Zelnick is, well, an Oliver Platt character: charming, witty and slightly rotund. As the seconds in the duel between politician and interviewer, Kevin Bacon and Matthew Macfadyen create a real transatlantic dichotomy, with the former's Jack Brennan encapsulating the buzz-cut, ex-marine full-blooded Republican straw-man, and the latter's John Birt looking like he's just walked off a cricket pitch in a version of Britain that exists solely in the mind of Richard Curtis. Worst treated in a cast full of ciphers is Rebecca Hall, whose superfluous role as Caroline Cushing merely requires the actress to stand around and look beautiful, with nary a bra in sight.

Of course, accusing a film called Frost/Nixon of short-changing its supporting cast is futile. However, it is this lack of educational background and context that scuppers the film's attempt to communicate its key themes. Without an enlightened political grounding, the importance of the interview comes off as hollow, and Frost's transformation from cheesy host to 'hard-nosed interviewer' over a series of contrived montage sequences is crass, and does a disservice to the journalism it is positioned to champion.

These flaws would not be so glaring if it weren't for the film's steadfast commitment to the 'reality' of its drama. Throughout the picture, characters appear in short 'talking head' style documentary segments, relating and providing commentary on the action in the main narrative. This places Frost/Nixon somewhere between the semi-doc of Warren Beatty's Reds, which interspersed interviews with real life 'witnesses', and the stylish fun-doc of Man on Wire, but with one crucial difference - Frost/Nixon is entirely fabricated. Not only do these sequences exist as lazy shorthand for aspects that the film can't inherently express (many are attempts to stress the importance of what is happening), but they expose the limits of the film as a replacement for, or simply an equal of a documentary about the interview, or even watching the interview itself. This is not even bringing up the matter of more rounded, more widely-framed looks at the Nixon years, be they documentary or drama.

This redundancy pervades Frost/Nixon. The central performances are powerful and complex, yet Sheen and Langella's gravitas and tension are set in a shadowplay of mis- and under-representation. They can certainly be proud of, and expect, awards and nominations for their work. The film as a whole, however, despite displaying period flourishes and remarkable production detail, is surprisingly shallow. Without context, communication or education, Frost/Nixon is A Few Good Men gone Watergate, enjoyable simply as a two-pronged, cat-and-mouse drama, not as historical insight. It is sad to see such an interesting, mysterious topic of 20th century history defanged - surely that is a crime in itself.

Frost/Nixon is now showing at cinemas in the UK.

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