Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movie #36: Frost/Nixon

Some people get to say things like, "the book was better than the movie." I rarely read books that get adapted into films (though I regret to say I have read Angels and Demons and I suspect the movie will suck as much as the book), but I do get to say things like, "the play was better than the movie." In the case of Frost/Nixon, considered a likely candidate for Best Picture, the play was better than the movie---though only barely. Last April I had the pleasure of seeing the stage version of Frost/Nixon at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway and, although I had to explain to my date who Richard Nixon was, I came away feeling I'd seen something special. Interesting side note---my date knew that Watergate was a hotel, but didn't seem to know it was a scandal. That's a little bit like knowing that Hiroshima is a city in Japan, but not knowing we dropped the bomb on it.

Both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their stage roles for Ron Howard's theatrical version, and both make the transition reasonably well. Nixon's idiosyncrasies are so unique (and annoying) that it's sometimes hard to not want to judge Langella on his ability to impersonate, rather than embody Nixon. He does the latter better than the former, and the ability of a camera to capture an actor's subtlety helps more so than when performed for the stage. It's hard to create drama based on a series of conversations, but the stakes---repeatedly emphasized in faux interview cutaways to Frost's team of researchers (played well by Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt)---give the interview sessions a sense of urgency.

That said, while Ron Howard does a good job of making the play "feel" like a movie as opposed to a filmed play, certain elements don't quite work as well as they should. One of the more compelling aspects of the story is how Frost essentially funded the whole concept on a wing and a prayer. Plenty of time is given to this aspect, but the desperation isn't as palpable in the movie as it was on the stage. Also, one of the major weaknesses of the play is repeated for the movie---a lengthy scene in which a drunk Nixon calls Frost one night in a soul-bearing exchange. It never happened. It's bad enough that the scene doesn't really work, but for it to occupy space in a compelling story almost entirely comprised of fact makes it really stand out as excessive and, perhaps, irresponsible. Frost/Nixon is a good film, but it's not Oscar-worthy.

Grade: 7/10


Blogger Morgan said...

how do you even end up on a date with someone like that?

January 11, 2009 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I actually don't believe the person knew the hotel and not the scandal. I believe they said that, but I think they were lying.

A friend who saw both the play and movie told me two things that made me think I would hate this: 1) that, aside from the drunk-dialing thing, a pivotal thing Nixon says about taking responsibility...he never said! and 2) that the script emphasizes the importance of the interview in illuminating the scandal, as if the Washington Post never existed. These kinds of things bug me no end in "historical" movies.

January 11, 2009 at 1:44 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...


I choose to make my stories a lot like Frost/Nixon. They're 90% true and 10% embellishment. Or outright lies. Whatever makes the story better. But I do agree with you about the "historical" aspects of the script. It's already a good story, so why tinker with it and start remaking history? It's one thing if it's a "reimagining" of history, but Frost says it's 90% true. I guess my feeling is once it's already 90% true, why not just go the distance and make it, you know, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I don't think you'd hate the movie, but I can see why you'd be skeptical.

January 11, 2009 at 7:06 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...


I met her online. Duh.

January 11, 2009 at 7:07 PM  
Anonymous Koven said...

Just saw this over the weekend, and though I unfortunately missed the play when it was here, I could sense that this story worked much better as a play than as a movie. I could accept the manufactured Nixon drunk-dial as a "spoken directly to the audience" soliloquy in a play, but not as a "this actually happened" scene in a movie. It put the remainder of the movie's factuality into serious question, which is a shame given that it for the most part plays pretty close to the historical record.

January 12, 2009 at 12:41 PM  

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