Thursday 5 February 2009

Frost/Nixon: Why Films About Politics Don't Work

Frost/Nixon is a relatively enjoyable film with interesting moments, but it is nothing more than that. The story of a young, ambitious talk-show host from England not only capturing the most sought after political interview in the States but extracting a confession of sorts, has the makings of an intriguing drama. But, that summary is more interesting than the film itself.

Frost is played by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen) who has made a career out of a cringe-worthy smile. He can't decide whether his role is as a one-dimensional impersonator or as a serious actor. Frost comes across as a superficial game-show host obsessed by women and his own comfort. As a result it is difficult to make the leap to regarding him as someone who has the knowledge and determination to pull off an eight hour political interview. It is like Bruce Forsyth dropping his dancing antics to do an in-depth interview with George Bush about policy.

The money obsessed Nixon is played by Frank Langella, who is too grandfatherly for my liking. I expected to see him shuffling about in slippers and struggled to imagine him as a ruthless political operator.

The other supporting roles are just as mis-placed. Matthew MacFadyen (the heart-throb of Spooks and Little Dorrit) plays Frost’s producer with a bizarre grey wig. Rebecca Hall is Frost’s girl-fiend who follows him about like a shadow and occasionally opens and shuts the bedroom door. There were also two annoying American journalists/researchers who flapped around Frost (they were meant to be helping him) for no real purpose.

Finally, the film got to the all important interview, but even then it was anti-climatic: we all knew what was going to happen, and when it did it was less dramatic than we expected.

I would have much preferred to see actual footage or interviews with the characters who still survive (i.e. Frost himself). After all, the actual moment in politics is where the drama is and the real figures are often far more interesting and comic than actors. Recent films such as Touching the Void and Man on Wire show how successful real interviews can be and how they can sustain a film. Instead Frost/Nixon presented a pale imitation of the real drama.

Films about politics don’t work. However, political films (an important distinction) are an entirely different matter. The recent films Hunger (Bobby Sands and the Maze riots) and Waltz with Bashir (the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 80s) dealt with political situations using shocking and original techniques, rather than Frost/Nixon’s predictable and forgettable attempt.


Rachael Jolley said...

Found it gripping myself. Always find it hard to tear my eyes away from the screen when Michael Sheen is on it, and I felt the film built on the tension of the tightly action of the play, and made a relevant point lightly that Frost and Nixon were both outsiders. Frost was not considered a serious heavy-weight by the media world, who sneered at his light-entertainment shows, and Nixon felt very strongly he was very outside the Washington elite, and looked down upon for that reason.

My top political films would include:

The Killing Fields
Cry Freedom
American President
Good Morning Vietnam

Nick Anstead said...

I think you misunderstand what the film is about (or at least, your reading differs to mine). I don't think that historical politics is actually the defining theme of the film - it is simply a vehicle for articulating a different idea. In fact, the thesis I think it is positing is the "reality" constructed on television is so dominant that it permeats and eventually comes to be absolute reality.

The ghost in the background the whole way through is the 1960 TV debate and Jack Kennedy's comfort on the screen. In contrast Nixon, through (an unusual for him) bout of ill-health and bad advice looks shifty and untrustworthy.

But the key point is that these events haunt him and fuel his paranoia, ultimately setting in motion the events that lead to his demise. In other words, he slowly but surely becomes the twisted creature created by TV in 1960.

Frost too is also a construction of the smallscreen, judging his self-worth by shallow measures of celebrity. Without his TV shows, these would cease - there would be no more David Frost, as the world understood it.

But I don't think it is an "anti-TV" film. In fact, it ultimately concludes by showing the potential of TV to do good. By creating a situation where one moment of candour can be ellicted, Frost gives Nixon a measure of redemption. That sets in train a new reality, breaking the cycle.

Rachael Jolley said...

I agree with you Nick. I think it made those points well - about how image is a momentary construct of a television second. And how Frost's career bubble could have burst as quickly as Nixon's. My feeling was that it did convey a sense of the period, and gave us an understanding of Nixon the man, and his neuroses, and laid those out in parallel with those of Frost.

Anthony Painter said...

Ben Bradlee, Editor of the Washington Post at the time, walked out of the film on the entirely justifiable basis that Nixon didn't apologise in the interviews (which I watched over Christmas) and he does, apparently, in the film.

For what it's worth, he didn't confess either. In fact, he kept to a very defined (legal) line on it all. Great drama but there is a mythology to it and the film becomes the historical record which is a problem- big problem.....not sure many people who watch the film will get the subtleties of Nick's post-modern interpretation and will instead take it at face value. Nixon was a crook and didn't regret a thing that he did- apart from losing office.

More below:

Nick Anstead said...

Hey Anthony, thanks for the response to my comment (and also the discovery of your blog, which I like a lot).

I suppose, for me, the equation is this: are you willing to sacrafice a measure of historical accuracy for good art? I think you can, and for my money, this was undoubtedly very good art indeed. The alternative - if we tie ourselves to only the most literal representation of history - is a horrendous, syrupy realism, unable to articulate even the mildest form of abstraction.

Calix said...

Rachael - I take your point about other films about politics (rather than political films - a fine distinction - but one I will stick with). The problem is that we have all seen different films. Perhaps I am being too sweeping.

However, I still don't think Frost/Nixon was a good film. Rachael and Nick are too generous in my opininon and give the film qualities it did not have.

I am not the only one who thinks it is a mediocre film that promises more than it can deliver. Read Philip French in The Guardian:- "When I saw this at the London film festival last year, I found myself disconcerted and underwhelmed by a hugely anticipated movie.". He gave the film 2 stars.

I rest my case.

Anthony Painter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony Painter said...

Nick- I take your point about drama though note it is usually the dramatisation that is syrupy and horrendous rather than the reality. That, despite a brilliant performance from Sean Penn, was the case with Milk, for example.

The problem with the culture-history distinction is that it is often a false one. Worse, culture has a rather more domineering impact on history than vice versa. So yes, it does matter whether Nixon apologised and confessed or not.

Having said that, the original tapes at times are mesmerising. It is incredible television and Frost deserves credit for that- just not what he claims credit for (I saw an interview recently where he claimed that he got a 99.9% confession- what sort of confession is that?!!?!!? I 99.9% murdered him....) But I'd recommend getting the originals on DVD. It is proof that while culture can short change history, history can be exhilaratingly dramatic.

Waltz with Bashir is incredible as Sunder says.