Friday, 6 February 2009

Not the Cameo Monday Night Film Club - Frost/Nixon

This week, Monday Night Film Club once again absented itself from its regular home. The reason: Frost/Nixon has still to make it to the Cameo (doubtless because they are still running Slumdog Millionaire ad nauseam and which, while good, doesn't quite seem to deserve all the praise heaped upon it lately, it doesn't feel a fraction the film of either Milk or this). Instead, we repaired to the Film House, which may have a nicer bar, better food and an amazing range of real ale for a cinema, but sadly also costs nearly three times what a Cameo card gets you on Monday night.

It was a close run thing, I almost didn't make it as the snow caused the buses on Gorgie Road to grind to a halt. However, having nagged the club's founders to put the film on the itinerary for a few weeks now, I wasn't about to miss it. After a mad dash through the less than clement weather on foot as snow had forced traffic to a halt, I made it with time to spare for a glass of the bar's very fine freshly squeezed orange juice, from their equally fine juice squeezing machine.

But what of the film itself? Well, it tells the story of David Frost's famous interview with Richard Nixon in 1977. The film is based on a highly successful stage play by Peter Morgan, which I sadly never saw, and both leads have wisely been retained.

The film opens with some archive footage setting the scene, namely Watergate and the resignation of Nixon in 1974. This includes such items as Nixon's resignation speech, which is sensibly given by Langella rather than using archive Nixon footage, which might only confuse. David Frost, then working in Australia, sees the news and decides that he must get an interview with Nixon. The film chronicles his attempt to do so, putting his own money on the line in the process.

Michael Sheen, as Frost, and Frank Langella, as Nixon, offer standout performances. Sheen in particular embodies Frost and his mannerisms, and while Langella may not physically be a dead ringer for Nixon, he has the voice and it is a powerful portrayal. Matthew Macfadyen is good as producer John Birt (who would later go on to do his best to wreck the BBC and then act as a 'blue sky thinking' advisor to Tony Blair, refusing to testify before parliament) and therefore, manages something of a miracle in not leaving one despising him completely. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are superb as the journalist and writer who assist in preparing for the interview. Kevin Bacon is very strong too as Nixon's post resignation chief of staff Jack Brennan.

Director Ron Howard keeps the tension high, though one does wonder what goes on in his mind sometimes - according to an infuriating advert that has been playing in the Cameo in past months, he hired the two helicopter pilots who flew Nixon away from the White House to repeat it as this was authentic. How it's authentic to have people who are now by some way too old for active service isn't quite clear. One thing that doesn't entirely work is the elastic portrayal of time: it feels like we're only a few months from the resignation when, suddenly, a screen caption informs us we're in 1977 for the interviews.

What emerges particularly interestingly is how small a segment the famous 'apology' part of the interview is in terms of a larger, and duller, whole. This also begs the question of historical accuracy. One has to assume the interviews themselves are faithful - certainly a record must exist of these, so there is no need to fictionalise (and any twisting would be easily exposed). And yet, wikipedia, indicates both that there are problems with the overall accuracy and, more interesting, the extent to which Frost actually drew the apology out of Nixon. It should also be noted that by this point in his career, Frost had many big interviews under his belt rather than being completely green as the film implies. Nixon's use of profanity is also criticised. He is famous for this, but mainly due to the infamous [expletive deleted] which occurred throughout published tapes. Interestingly, the words excised were not nearly as severe as this led people to think.

Elsewhere, more licence has doubtless been taken. In two key scenes especially so. Nixon was clearly a damaged individual. It is amusing on the various occasions when he his referred to as a Quaker, since his actions would have him as anything but. Clearly deeply insecure and deeply uncomfortable in social situations. He abused his power hideously, and yet there were aspects of his legacy that were good and lasting (such as the decision to float exchange rates or the start of normalising relations with China). As always, though, it is impossible to know the mind of the man, which only makes the two scenes in question all the more interesting. Both are private conversations between Frost and Nixon. In the first, Nixon drunkenly calls Frost. Wikipedia notes that Brennan maintains this is fiction and that Nixon rarely drank. Perhaps, but volume one of Kissinger's memoirs, covering the first term of the presidency, gives examples of just such calls. And even if not, Nixon's explanation of what drives him is among the most convincing parts of the film and helps provide a convincing explanation of his behaviour.

Plenty of niggles then, none of which stop it from being a great and extremely compelling film, and, I would suggest, a valuable insight into the two men.

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