Washington Heights Film Class: Frost/Nixon (review)

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Frost/Nixon will be playing at The Hebrew Tabernacle on 185th street and Fort Washington Avenue tomorrow, February 12th, as part of The Washington Heights Film Class. The film will begin at 7:30pm and will be followed by a discussion.

It's no accident that the title of Ron Howard's latest film sounds like a boxing match rather than a series of interviews between a journalist and former president. Part of what makes Frost/Nixon so compelling is the depiction of the two men as adversaries in a slew of contentious duels where both opponents' careers are on the line.

The movie begins with Nixon (Frank Langella) resigning the presidency before a television audience of 400 million. The gloom and tension in the wake of a man forced to step down from the highest office in the world contrasts the happy-go-lucky spirit of talk show host and English playboy David Frost (Michael Sheen) as he dismantles a live studio audience with his humor and charm. Frost's subsequent pursuit of the Nixon interviews quickly transforms him into an American laughing stock, however, and with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the production, his professional reputation hinges on whether or not he can get the president to confess to criminal involvement in the Watergate scandal. 

"The American people need a conviction," says journalist James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who Frost hires to help prepare him for the interviews. "If, in this interview, Nixon exonerates himself, that would be the greatest crime of all."  Reston's insistence that the U.S. democracy depends on getting Nixon to confess raises the stakes even higher for Frost, who was previously only concerned with the commercial success of the broadcasts. In the other corner, Nixon's head of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) assures him the interviews are the very opportunity the former president needs to rebuild his reputation.

Adapted from a play of the same name, Frost/Nixon vividly recreates the 70s within a fast-paced narrative. The intercutting of actual news reports lends a surreal quality to the story reminiscent of Apollo 13, but reenactments of widely recognizable historical events, such as Nixon's famous wave goodbye before boarding Marine One, act as wrenches in the gears of our suspended disbelief. Far more effective is the following shot of Langella's sullen facial expression looking out the window while the White House disappears beneath him. The colorful, off the cuff remarks between Frost and Nixon also add refreshing humor to many tension-filled scenes, despite their historical inaccuracy. 

While there is little physical resemblance between Langella and Nixon, the actor's portrayal of 37th president is remarkably spot-on, as evidenced by Langella's Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Sheen also plays Frost's character without a single dishonest moment, although his overused, frozen-faced smile occasionally spoils certain shots. The supporting cast of Bacon, Rockwell and Oliver Platt (as journalist Bob Zelnick) all deliver riveting and nuanced performances.

Frost/Nixon's five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published are a testament to the film's achievement as more than just another cinematic account of American political history. Howard's continued ability to keep an audience that already knows the ending on the edge of it's seat is nothing short of remarkable.

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