Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt
Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 122 min.
Genre: Drama, History
Frost/Nixon’s idea of a grueling interview is a boxing match. Not such a bad way of perceiving things, until the focus is lost from interview and is squarely shifted to the boxing match. Ron Howard, and Peter Morgan take that thematic connection so seriously they start seeking inspiration from Hollywood sports movies with stock storylines. Even that wouldn’t have been that bad, considering you can always find ways of making a send-up of sorts by structuring your film that way. But neither Howard, upon whom I am sure, nor Peter Morgan, upon whom I need to confirm my latest doubts, are nearly as smart enough to realize that. Hell, they seem to be not smart enough to realize they aren’t smart enough. I draw that conclusion because no smart person would get down to ridiculously dramatizing an historical event that had already been devised thus. The real-life Frost/Nixon interviews relied heavily upon the dramatic personality of Mr. Richard Nixon, and the dramatic developments that unfolded during the course.
But nobody seems to realize it, and they instead reduce it to one of those underdog stories you have seen a million times. Be it in sports movies, or in one of those melodramatic courtroom dramas, where the young brash hero is losing the plot. He isn’t given any chance against the schemes of the snickering villain, neither by his foes, nor by his peers. And then, just before the final round, or the final day, an unlikely source installs a sense of inspiration deep into the soul of the crusader. He turns an unstoppable force overnight, pouring over books and files and highlighting and underlining, or starts jogging and piling weight after weight upon himself all the time remembering the saddest emotional moment of his lives as if it were a leverage. And all that is underscored by some rousing music behind. The montage plays over and over. You might as well shoot one such set, and use it time and again, just replacing the faces using CGI. There’ll come such a time, and filmmakers as unimaginative as Ron Howard might stand to gain a lot from it.
The problem here is that the unlikely source is likely the worst movie scene of the year. It involves a drunken Nixon calling a down and out David Frost in the middle of the night. So down, that he has absolutely written himself out. It is, in true movie tradition, his birthday, and supposedly a cause for us to sink in despair. We do too, but for radically different reasons. Nixon calls, and Nixon rambles, the details of which I will spare you. Suffice to say it deals with the obsessions the public, and the movies (Stone’s mediocre Nixon) share about him, about his insecurities, and his grouchy self. This is a period where the film and the script are desperate to hammer in the idea that these are fundamentally two like-minded people facing off, you know like in another of those age-old movie traditions, and the telephone call is a cheap way of demonstrating it to us. To some, it might seem drama. To me, and lot of other self respecting individuals, that is a goddamn cliché. And the movie is riddled with those. I’ll do you the favor of listing you some, and if you find yourself curious, you might seek the rest.
Now, was Mr. Nixon a grouchy old man? Frank Langella, and writer Peter Morgan, upon whose play the film is based, view Mr. Nixon thus. You know, mirroring the popular perception that clouded everybody’s opinion about the man post the public declaration of the tapes. Langella, in turn, plays him like a huffy puffy wrestler, easily agitated when cornered. The real Nixon, or at least whatever I saw and read of him was far from that. An approximation would be a salesman, and often Nixon behaved like one, always pretending to be affable and pleasing rather than aggressive and confronting. His interviews with Mr. David Frost are an example where he smiles, often sheepishly. But the movie never examines this predicament, because it isn’t interested in the person and his set of qualities and his set of flaws. Maybe, rightly so, because this isn’t a biopic. But when the film reduces him to a caricature that is wrong, and unacceptable. Langella’s performance is buzzing the Oscar word, but the way I see it, it is a terrible and phony turn. One that doesn’t try to embody the person, but instead tries to embody the characteristics. Yes, Nixon did get drunk and do ill-advised phone calls, but using it as a turning point and filling it with the dialogs that it has speaks of the sensationalist attitude of many a media channel of today. Ron Howard falls in the same category, a person bereft of any analytical intellect and adept only at dramatizing. Remember the Max Baer character, and what a cardboard he was in Cinderella Man? Such sequences speak, or betray the intellect which believes in drawing leverage rather than constructing an intelligent analysis. That drunk phone call scene, by the way, would have been a good choice for a satire, but the absolute wrong one for such a drama.
Let us come back to that terrible choice of having the phone conversation. Nixon hangs up, and Frost, who till now has been squandering the interviews feels a spark light up inside of him. Just like the case with countless movie characters before him who have felt that inspiration, he says to Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), his then girlfriend, I have got to work, and he starts rummaging through the case files and the tape transcripts and what not. He is a changed man now, one who didn’t know anything about the Watergate scandal until then, and who suddenly and overnight had grown into a pundit. A flawed man, yes, but an inherently good man who at last found his moment. Stuff of dreams, as you might call it. Where else can it happen but at the movies.
But was the real Mr. Frost so careless, and dare I say imprudent? So neglectful that he didn’t bother to prepare himself for the interview until the very last day. The interview was conducted across four sessions on four separate days, mind you, and the film shows him absolutely negligent until the very last day. They show it as a bout, each session a round, and the first three seem to have gone Nixon’s way. But the fourth, and Frost punches in a knockout, eliciting the famous apology out of Nixon.
Did it happen thus, would be a moot question. Of course not. Mr. Frost and co. spent 18 months (from the time of the signing of contract to the actual interviews) preparing like hell. The real Mr. Frost is laid back, and cool. Michael Sheen plays him like a fresh from college journalist eager to have his first big bite. But then, history or reality isn’t something the film is interested in getting right. It is manipulated with great generosity, and every time without any obvious cause. Just as Mr. Nixon argued in the original interviews that Mr. Frost was picking his quotes and quoting them out of context, the film uses the interviews as a clothesline on which to hang its idea of thematic resonance. In the actual interviews Mr. Frost asked Mr. Nixon about the latter’s quote to Chuck Colson, in an unpublished document. The quote was dated Feb 13th, 1973, 8 months after the burglary, and it goes - This tremendous investigation rests unless one of the seven begins to talk. Now, the entire basis of Mr. Frost’s tightening noose around Mr. Nixon during the interview wasn’t the knowledge of the burglary but the knowledge of the cover-up. Hell, that is what the entire scandal boils down to, the cover up. But no, the film decides to use the same quote but on a different day, on June 20th 1972, three days after the burglary. In the film, David Frost is trying to corner Nixon on the very same question by asking about his knowledge of the burglary, rather than you know, the cover-up.
You might wonder why the film chooses thus. But then history isn’t relevant here. This is like a boxing match where it isn’t about the punches and the strategies, or a courtroom drama where it isn’t about the legalities and rebuttals. The interviews, the whole Watergate scandal is meaningless to the film. It might as well have had David Frost and Richard Nixon indulge themselves in a WWE wrestling bout and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
Now let me stop myself from nitpicking on historical accuracies, and although this might be a complete mess, I believe a film can surely take liberties if its purposes are thematically sound. I’m not sure that is the case here. For one, an interview like this that had been designed to be dramatic (imagine the fiercest episodes of Hard Talk with Tim Sebastien, or remember Karan Thapar’s grueling session with Kapil Dev on the same programme), would naturally serve the said purpose in a film too. Why would there arise the need to dramatize it further, unless of course the filmmaker and the screenwriter think that we’re not intelligent enough to get it. And if that wasn’t terrible, they choose to include a thousand age-old movie clichés. You see, there’s no other way of saying it other than that Frost/Nixon is horrendously clichéd. And for a movie, that is based on actual historical events, rather than imagined ones, that is a terrible quality to have. I am not sure if it is my expectations, which as a matter of fact never bother me, neither during the viewing nor during the analysis. That is why I am astonished how inexplicably bad this movie actually is.
Second, the theme, the battle are the interviews. Everything lay in and around those interviews. Everything about Frost and Nixon lay in the how, why and what of those interviews. The script is right in creating a narrative about the interviews, rather than the men, but it botches up the execution. The interviews, themselves have significantly less footage. They’re, as a matter of fact, pushed to the background, used only as a punchline every now and then. What we see is behind the scenes, which is fine up to a point. But here, it gets way too much, especially when every time either Frost or Nixon score a point, we see reactions of the aides on both sides. There’s Kevin Bacon, as Jack Brennan, and his end of the bargain is to look mean and menacing. There’s Diane Sawyer in Nixon’s camp, and all she and the other two are asked to do is to smirk as they look at the miserable Frost. Are they even characters, or are they just excuses for the bad guys? It is shameful of the film to resort to such means to invoke emotions out of us.
Howard and Morgan do not seem to think much of our intelligence, and there’s ample proof in the way the interviews are conducted. Nothing is left to our inference, and everything is spelt out by means of the various side characters. The script has a neat style where everybody except for Nixon and Frost are shown speaking about the interviews, as in a History Channel documentary, and they interpret and lay out everything for us. They might as well have had a scoreboard nearby and it wouldn’t have made it any worse. And there is another weakness that is betrayed in the process. One of the great features of the original interviews was the atmosphere, with its low-key home lighting, which reined in a cozy, warm environment. It felt interior. The film though for its part doesn’t know how to shoot those sequences. So all it does is show us excerpts of those interviews, and if you have ever heard an interview, you would agree that the impact lay in how it evolves rather than the highlights. It is a slow process, a gradual increase in the tension, each moment drawing strength from the previous. The film doesn’t know that, and for it this is a boxing match. A punch, a sentence is all it needs. The final interview, and the final apology is run fast because it needs to be accommodated by highlighting the key points, and it is a horrendous example of by-the-numbers filmmaking.
But then, when has Ron Howard been a director of style, or substance, or intelligence? If he would have been any good, he would have seen the interviews time and again, and drawn inspiration from there. There’re moments of great gravity, little moments, a glance, a smile, a remark, and it says a lot. But then, subtlety is hardly a hallmark that can be said about most Hollywood filmmakers, including Howard. Here is man susceptible to clichés. I always felt that Ron Howard can never ever make a good film respectful of the intellect of its audiences. Now, I’m fairly certain he never will. All he can do is shamelessly pander by presenting his movie-grown dramatization, oblivious of his own limitations. All his aim with this film is to implicate Nixon yet again. There isn’t no insight to be had, and we gain no greater understanding. Mr. Frost and his motivations are never questioned, neither is the self-righteousness of the media. That is a vision of course that is outside Ron Howard’s capabilities. He might not realize that the Nixon interviews, more than an historical event, were a media event. Historically, it was a footnote. Of course, all Howard’s limited intellect can do is pick up the footnote and sound it as if it is one of history’s landmarks, and relevant to today’s political climate. I wonder, has Ron Howard ever even met people?
Posted by Satish Naidu at 1:29 AM