Biopics: Frost Nixon

I am something of a biopic junkie… I love movies about real people, because real people are far more interesting than fictional characters. I had intended to spend the next few posts discussing “magnificent performances” in general, but that was only encouraged by getting up this morning to read that The Iron Lady‘s UK screening went extremely well. I’ve been following the project with some interest and am eager to see the outcome — it’s a new biopic that seems to be getting favorable conservative reviews, about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch it! I foresee another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep — and maybe she’ll win this time! (How awesome is it that all the footage of Reagan is archived footage, with Meryl superimposed into it? Reminds me of this advertisement for Dior which about made me fall off my chair the first time I saw it.)

Biopics are a dime a dozen in truth and not all of them are wonderful, but there are a few who are made to stand out because of an incredible performance. Sometimes the film is tainted through accepting rumors as facts (such as plagues the recent film J. Edgar, about J. Edgar Hoover) and at other times there is an intentional bias in the script, but on occasion an actor transforms the leading character in such incredible ways that the audience is left impacted through it. In this series, we will be discussing a number of films that contain truly outstanding performances from a rage of actors, but today I would like to talk about a movie that surprised everyone — the critically-acclaimed big-screen adaptation of Frost Nixon, based on the award-winning Broadway play. It follows two central figures, journalist  David Frost and disgraced former President Richard Nixon, pairing off against one another in a four session interview. Both men have everything on the line — Frost is heavily financially involved and finds it difficult to gain support through advertising and network connections, while Nixon views this as his final chance at mending his reputation and reminding the public of the good things he did in office.

Each actor — Michael Sheen and Frank Langella — turn in a worthy performance, assisted in large part with a wonderful script by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay for The Queen. I love the fact that in each script, the audience is left to choose a side (or pull for both) rather than being preached at, because the characters are wholly defined and likable. Here, we do get a sense that Nixon is haunted by his mistakes, but we also see him as an ordinary human being who did what he thought was right (or what he knew was wrong), who has a sense of humor and deep love for animals, and is charismatic and memorable as much for the sense of sadness he embodies as for his misbehavior. The script never relents on the fact that Nixon’s actions with regards to Watergate were wrong, but it also points out that certain members of Frost’s team had an agenda. As a result, we become so fond of Nixon that we almost want him to escape stringing himself up in the interviews but we also want the best for Frost, considering he has put so much of his reputation and finances on the line, in a project that no one believes will succeed. In a way, it feels a little self-important because it makes such a monumental issue out of an interview, but that is what makes people’s lives so remarkable in and of themselves — the smaller but vital moments that signify success or failure.

In a way, this film vindicated me from my assertion that in spite of being involved in numerous previous movies that are sheer high camp, Langella actually does have genuine acting clout — somewhere along the way, he is no longer an actor and embodies the figure of Nixon wholly and utterly, to the point that we forget the distinction by the end. So much is expressed in his face and eyes, in the deliberate choices he makes in his delivery of lines, in the rapid indignation and sense of humor that causes him to twinkle a little before firing off a disarming question. It is not an impersonation, it is an embodiment — Langella has taken Nixon with all his faults, virtues, and intellect, and given us his interpretation of him. Regardless if he looks or sounds the part, it is so well presented that we forget what the real Nixon looked and sounded like, because Langella is flawless. What’s more, in interviews he confesses to feeling empathy for the man (but not justifying his actions, of course) and it makes all the difference. Where the script might not have intended for this to be a hit piece, director Ronald Howard made it evident that it was his hope that people would see modern parallels between Nixon and Bush, with the implication that Bush should suffer the same fate as Nixon. Thanks largely to Langella’s performance, this concept utterly fails, because the audience likes Nixon. It does not vindicate him, it does not excuse him, but Langella approaches him with such humanity that the inevitable result is our realization that he is not a monster after all.

There are two sides to each issue and every story and it is rare that a film attempts to honestly depict both, but this is one of the rare exceptions: the end result does not honor one man over the other, but instead leaves the audience to form its own conclusions… which based on your political leanings may be one of gratification or relief. Even though Langella had some tough competition at the Oscars that year, I still think it is a shame he did not win Best Actor, because for him, it truly is the role and the performance of a lifetime.

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