Frost/Nixon: An Adaptation So Good, It Seems Illegal

It’s hard transitioning a play to film with the same cast seamlessly. Certainly all of the best films of the last twenty years based on plays have been recast with movie stars— they know how to work the camera, they know what level of energy to use. Regardless of the casting, an inordinate amount of loyalty to the source material can lead to the action being stagey (Rent), the performances being hammy (The Producers), or the dialogue being overly theatrical and verbose (Closer).

Ron Howard has outdone himself, however, with this adaptation of Frost/Nixon, the best play-on-film since Angels in America. He has somehow managed to stay entirely loyal to the source material, retaining the two stars from the stage, and kept it all running so smoothly that the film is as intense and high-stakes as any thriller. The leads deliver Oscar-worthy performances, and Ron Howard’s direction is the most subtle and assured of his career—there’s not a hint of the manipulation and sentimentality which have laced his other films.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a British playboy TV host, booted from his American show and currently doing his show in the booming television metropolis of… Australia. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has resigned the presidency in the midst of the Watergate scandal, yet never admitted any guilt or indicated any hint of an apology, and since Gerald Ford pardoned him, he would never have to. Frost wants to land Nixon as an interview, we sense, because it will bring him some glory and ratings, but he swiftly comes to realize that this can’t be the cupcake interview that Nixon’s team believes it will be— he has the responsibility to give Nixon the trial he never got.

If this seems talky and boring, it’s not. Howard does a terrific job setting the angry, restless atmosphere of America through documentary footage and old news clips. The documentary touch in particular is a stroke of genius—it allows Howard to take the testimonial monologues of the supporting characters in the play and introduce them into the film in a realistic manner. That way, instead of seeming theatrical and superfluous, the monologues are revelatory about the characters and help transport us back in time. The supporting cast is solid throughout—Sam Rockwell strikes the right note of the angry politically charged professor, Oliver Platt has many funny moments as the exasperated producer, and Kevin Bacon lends dignity to the role of Nixon’s military aide and watchdog Col. Jack Brennan.

But of course the whole film is on the shoulders of the title characters. If Frank Langella doesn’t look like Nixon, you won’t remember the second you see him. What’s striking isn’t the way Langella nails Nixon’s intelligence or the power of his voice—it’s the hints at all the insecurity underneath, the remorse that he knew was never going to be well-liked, regardless of what he accomplished. A late-night phone call he places to Frost may seem like a device to get a character who doesn’t show his hand to reveal it, but Langella doesn’t give himself away. He slowly peels away one thin layer at a time until he realizes he’s screaming—it’s a terrific moment in a movie full of them. However, I wouldn’t dare overlook Sheen, who has the less flashy role but nails the way a television host wears a smile like a mask in the face of adversity. It’d be easy for that type of role to be swallowed up by a heavyweight like Langella playing a heavyweight like Nixon. He never falters, and neither does the film. It’s one of the best films of the year.

~ by russellhainline on January 2, 2009.

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