Monday, January 5, 2009

Everybody Loves Nixon!

And we're back to the movies! Today's subject is ...



Frost/Nixon (d. Ron Howard)

The very first big time news story I ever followed was Watergate. It was not by choice. Back when I grew up in the late Cretaceous Period, the only time you could catch the good cartoons was Saturday morning, and I took my Saturday morning television very seriously, mapping out schedules so that I could maximize my cartoon intake between 6AM and 12 Noon.

Then along came this joker Richard Nixon and all my meticulous planning was shot to Hades. Watergate coverage went wall to wall on all the networks from dawn to test pattern, preempting everything, including my beloved cartoons. With nothing else to do (Go outside? Me?), I ended up becoming the most well-versed Watergate expert in the third grade, peppering my playground patter with names like Haldeman and Colson.

Is is any surprise I was so popular?

Ron Howard was still referred to as "Ronnie Howard" at the time and wasn't all that much older than me. I wonder if the Watergate hearings cut into his TV viewing. Or his prepping for the role of Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days."

All that is ancient history, of course. Nowadays, little Ronnie Howard is a big shot movie director with an Oscar and everything and no one bats an eyelash when he takes on a serious project like adapting Peter Morgan's stage hit Frost/Nixon to the silver screen.

With the Watergate hearings all over the airwaves and Nixon's resignation address pulling enormous Nielsen numbers, it could be argued that he was America's biggest TV star. A major interview with the disgraced ex-President would be a surefire ratings bonanza for whatever news organization could land him. And that's when David Frost stepped in.

Frost was a British chat-show host and comic whose earlier foray onto American TV had recently flopped. He was considered a lightweight, a cheesy schmoozer who lobbed softballs to the rich and famous so he could attend their fabulous parties and gala premiers. He was certainly not considered a serious journalist.

They say (in a Star Trek movie) that only Nixon, the old cold warrior, could go to China. Perhaps only Frost, the genial performer, could have probed Nixon so effectively. With a so-called serious journalist, the wily old politician would have never let his guard down. Besides, Frost ponied up the dough.

That head-to-head is the basis for Howard's latest film, Frost/Nixon. The movie concerns itself not only with the actual on-air dust-up between the two principals, but also with the astounding effort that went into arranging the interviews and then securing a TV home for them to air. The networks were miffed at being scooped by an upstart Brit and had no interest in providing him with a platform. They accused Frost of "checkbook journalism," even though their own checkbooks were out and their pens were ready. Frost simply outbid them.

It's not terribly difficult to see Howard identifying with Frost in this story. He too started out as a director with light entertainments, debuting with a Roger Corman cheapie exploitation film called Grand Theft Auto (not the video game), then making his name as the creator of such insubstantial fare as Night Shift and Splash. I'm sure he faced resistance from some in Hollywood as he transitioned to more serious movies like Apollo 13 or The Paper (criminally overlooked, that one). Frost's struggle to tackle such an important interview must have resonated with him.

Michael Sheen plays David Frost with a facile grin and pleasant manner that mask bulldog determination. He smiles and cheerleads, even as he knows his future career is on the line. But he believes in this project and more importantly, he believes in himself at the center of this project, so he does whatever it takes to make it happen. If that means cutting an enormous check to Richard Nixon out of his own pocket, that's what he'll do. If it means convincing the heads of a weed-whacker company that his show is just the right advertising fit for them, so be it.

Nixon himself is much more elusive. Frank Langella doesn't try to impersonate the easily parodied former President, beyond a few slight vocal ticks. Instead he plays a man who is probably -- probably -- the smartest man in the room. And who knows that his downfall was directly connected to not being smart enough. He is depressed and resigned (in more than one way), but when Frost comes knocking, he sees an opportunity for one more duel. He can't resist.

Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon play loyal corner men for Frost and Nixon respectively, and are both excellent. But the movie belongs to its two title characters, and their battle is utterly riveting.

Eight-year-old me would never have admitted it with the likes of "Scooby Doo" and "Pebbles and Bam Bam" shoved off the Saturday morning schedule, but those Watergate hearings were riveting as well. It is a tribute to Frost/Nixon that it captures such a critical time and such towering personalities so well, it can stand up to my vivid memories of the real thing.

4 stars.

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