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Friday, March 20, 2009
A gentlemanly duel over a coffee table
By KAORI SHOJI
Almost completely gripping. That would be an apt way to describe "Frost/Nixon," the sleeper hit that almost brought Academy Awards to director Ron Howard and actor Frank Langella.
Though always on the verge of teeth-clenching, gut-wrenching histrionics, "Frost/Nixon" refrains politely from going too far out on a limb. There are moments in the film when a bit of foolish, flinging-caution-to-the-wind bravado would have benefited it; after all, the story takes certain liberties in adding occasional spoonfuls of fantasy to this otherwise nonfiction drama. Instead, it surreptitiously dabs at traces of sweat and applies layers of foundation makeup before anything or anyone gets out of hand. In one atypical scene, a man strips off his three-piece suit and whooping, runs straight into the California ocean. It's about two seconds of combustive spontaneity and then it's over, like a dazzling mirage of a Club Med ad glimpsed during a classical concert.
"Frost/Nixon" is a brilliantly executed, masterly performed portrayal of the David Frost (British talk-show host) / Richard Nixon (disgraced ex-president) interview which, when aired across much of the world in 1977, drew over 400 million people to their TV sets. It marked a moment in television history and one of the defining moments when American politics officially shifted its sparring arena from behind closed oak doors in Washington, D.C. to flood-lit network studios that promised to probe, expose and explain all for public consumption. But, as anti-Nixon journalist James Reston Jr. (played in the film by Sam Rockwell) points out, TV has a way of eluding the truth: "It simplifies and minimizes what we thought was the essence, the reality of what's happening." In this sense, "Frost/Nixon" is about the snakish, slithery nature of TV as much as it is about Frost and Nixon — a tantalizing blend of media commentary and behind-the-scenes personalities of two charismatic men.
Initially, David Frost (Michael Sheen) wasn't in Nixon's (Frank Langella) weight class. A jet-setting, champagne-guzzling ladies man and state-of-the-art gabber, Frost had only a very loose grasp of American politics. More to the point, the film (which credits the real David Frost as a special consultant) never makes it clear what Frost actually thought about Nixon, dubbed by the U.S. media as Tricky Dicky. Quite possibly, Frost couldn't care less. To Frost, Nixon meant ratings and success in the U.S. — Frost's ticket to major-league fame. Tricky Dick on the other hand, was angling to restore his name and career. He was ready to ride Frost like a hired limo.
That Frost wasn't a hard-hitting political journalist, that he was British and not American, and most of all that he was offering hard cash (to the tune of $600,000) for the rights to an exclusive interview conducted on his home turf, were all factors that persuaded Nixon.
From the first meeting, the ex-president was condescending, smarmy and terrifically arrogant. Frost knew Nixon's game but was powerless to hit back, at least not yet. He fixed a toothy, professional smile on his face and was on his best behavior. But nervousness and desperation seemed to ooze from the collar of his immaculate shirt — after all, his entire career depended on swinging the interview, and then making it entertaining.
But Frost had the ability to keep his cool (precariously, but he did it) during the four-day, nine-hour interview, while Nixon's insecurities gradually rose to the fore. And then, even his trusted aide-cum-watchdog Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) couldn't prevent the ex-president from suffering a crucial, five-minute meltdown ("I've . . . let everyone down") that was taped, aired and subsequently quoted for decades to come. Nixon quickly controlled the damage while Frost, rather than press his advantage, straightened his own tie and backed off.
There's no doubt "Frost / Nixon" was a duel of major significance. But conducted on armchairs over a coffee table, it was a gentlemanly duel, a lofty card game turned into a media event. Both men had separate moments of triumph, but more telling are their looks of mildly bewildered disappointment: They went into battle, but whatever wounds they suffered could be concealed under TV makeup or tucked away inside flawlessly tailored suits.