Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Ron Howard is best known around these parts for being the quintessential Timberwolves director, a purveyor of well crafted, technically seamless films which nonetheless usually offer nothing particularly exciting or innovative. As we have touched on before, Timberwolves film are in many ways more artistically suspect than outright bad films. The latter are often the result of filmmakers attempting to do something they were not quite capable of or losing control of the work due to a vision that proved to be too grandiose. Yet such a failure is in many ways much more admirable than a solid so-so work. An attempt to stretch oneself artistically, to enter into uncharted territory, is always better than mediocrity, even when it fails. Ron Howard has done little or no stretching in his career, perhaps aside from producing the astounding TV series Arrested Development and directing the rather wonderful 80's effort Parenthood (which has, in turn, been turned into a recent TV series).
A classic example of Howard's output is the 1991 thriller Backdraft which stars everyone and their uncle. The film is fine as mindless entertainment yet suffers from an astounding syndrome, namely that the villain is revealed in one of those irritating surprise/twist endings yet it is impossible to remember who it was, even after having seen the film repeatedly. Was it Donald Sutherland? DeNiro? Russell himself, the protagonist? One of those Baldwins? Ed Harris? Wait... was Ed Harris even in that film?
(Editor's note: This syndrome has become eponymous with the film. A "Backdraft syndrome" is when one can rewatch a film numerous times yet not remember key plot points or scenes due to the Timberwolves nature of the work in question).
Frost/Nixon is certainly not a Timberwolves film. It is plagued by various problems, mostly having to do with the structure of the work, but it is a rather excellent piece of cinema with some wonderful acting, great cinematography and (indeed!) very able direction. The film revolves around the famous 1977 television interview between David Frost, a British television personality (sometime reporter, more-time talk show host) who - through great charm and resourcefulness - locked the first in-depth interview with former U.S. president Richard Nixon who had resigned from the presidency in 1974. Much of the drama of the film revolves around the fact whether or not Frost will make the interview a simple television spectacle to further his own career or if he will use this historic opportunity to give Nixon the trial that he never received (Nixon received a full pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, for any federal crimes he may have committed).
Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Matthew Macfadyen are the voice of both conscience and reason in Frost's corner. Rockwell plays James Reston Jr., a professor of politics who has written several books on Nixon and the Watergate scandal, a firebrand liberal thinker and intellectual who wants to see Nixon hang, at least symbolically, for the crimes he has committed against the presidency and the American people. Platt plays Bob Zelnick, a newscaster who similarly sees the Frost interviews as an opportunity for the press to accomplish what the U.S. courts were unable to, namely bring some kind of justice to Richard Nixon. Macfadyen plays Frost's trusted producer, someone who knows the man throughout years of work and companionship and who knows exactly when to push the volatile Frost and when to back off. In Nixon's corner there is Jack Brennan, Nixon's former Chief of Staff, played by Kevin Bacon in a wonderful performance, although the role is a bit limited and sometimes poorly written. Brennan is presented as a true believer, a conservative who sees Nixon as having been betrayed by his country which is increasingly being run by counter-cultural elements and left-wing liberals. Brennan sees the Front interviews as a chance for Nixon to exonerate himself, especially since it seems clear that Frost is nowhere near Nixon's intellectual prowess. There are certain scenes when the character seems a bit too much like a mouthpiece for a political ideology rather than a flesh and blood human beings. The same can be said for Rockwell and Platt's characters, although all of these actors do an excellent job in most of their scenes, piling on suspense with insightful dialogue and dramatic development. All three men care so deeply about the result of the interviews that it becomes impossible for the viewer not to get dragged into their enthusiasm.
The films relies almost entirely on the acting capabilities of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon respectively to carry the suspense and both men do an astounding job, repeating their Broadway roles. They manage to convey a great deal of pathos, suspense and intrigue with small looks, pauses and body language, making great use of the close-up which, exploring dimensions of these characters which would be impossible to reveal on stage. Both play flawed yet very human and relatable characters, always enabling us to enter into the historical context and importance of these events without ever reducing the story to universal ideas or ideologies but rather sticking to very particular issues and character developments which in turn reveal universal truths, both political and personal.
The cinematography, by Salvatore Totino, is absolutely wonderful, reminiscent of the great work Dante Spinotti has done with Michael Mann, bringing great drama and beauty to rather mundane locations (hotel rooms, suburban living rooms, production offices). Hans Zimmer's music capably intensifies the suspense without dominating the dialogue (wonderfully written by Peter Morgan who also wrote the play). Howard does a surprisingly good job of raising the stakes of the story while also showing off very innovative and exciting camera placement and direction of action, immersing the viewer, bit by bit, into the story and the larger themes involved. Perhaps Howard's greatest achievement is to allow us to see how important this moment in history was and the ways in which it resonates for our own politically fragile times.
Yet the problematic elements of the film lie mostly in Howard's yard, though Morgan's Hollywoodized version of his play also bears much of the blame, even though the dialogue is as crips as ever. The structure of the film starts of a bit flimsy and gets progressively worse. Howard chooses to set the interview scenes up as a boxing match, which works surprisingly well to begin with - especially in the "corner" scenes when Frost and Nixon seek advice from their respective advisors - yet after the fifteenth zip-pan one began to notice the seams a bit too much. Also, about thirty minutes into the film, the structure of the film starts to resemble the Rocky franchise a great deal. Howard relies on the old rise-fall-rise-again structure which has been a staple of sports films and schmaltzy biopics for decades. There's even a training montage (I kid you not) where Frost, after having suffered an initial defeats at the hands (mouth?) of Nixon returns to his hotel room, smokes a packs of Marlboros and researches the Watergate scandal into the wee hours of the night, returning with his Eye of the Tiger firmly in place for the final defeat of Ivan Drago/Richard Nixon.
The aforementioned dumbing down of the storytelling aside Frost/Nixon remains a rather excellent film, primarily due to the fact that Howard manages to powerfully convey the pivotal importance the media played in bringing about closure and perhaps even justice (though only symbolic) to the Watergate scandal. The film is an ode to an era when the media represented the voice of the people. Though Woodward and Bernstein were at the forefront of uncovering the Watergate scandal the subsequent investigation saw some amazing reporting by countless American journalists and reporters in both print and media whose primary goal was to bring out the truth and to serve the public. This is a far cry from our current situation where the growing apathy and intellectual atrophy of the American public has gone hand in hand with the corporate takeover of the media whose sole responsibility seems to be to keep the shareholders of their respective conglomerates happy. The most painful example of this in past decades was the inability, or willful refusal, of the American media to question and challenge the atrocious takeover of the Bush administration of the White House in 2000, in spite of immense evidence of voter fraud, and the subsequent immoral and illegal (at least according to international law) invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with numerous violations of the constitutional rights of American citizens. If nothing else, Frost/Nixon is a rather remarkable ode to the power very smart and educated men and women can make when they have the courage and conviction to serve something more noble than either themselves or corporate interests, a paean to the power of media to seek and uncover the truth and the importance of an informed populace. Though Frost/Nixon is not nearly as good as George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck or Michael Mann's The Insider it shares some of the same qualities as these films, a very intelligent and informative film that is also immensely entertaining and suspenseful and whose portrayal of a historical cultural and political events sheds important light on our own times and trials.