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Saturday, 3 January 2009

To review the movie Frost/Nixon by Ron Howard you need to step away from the brash powerflics given in the trailers, and away from the thundering chords in it backgrounding a heroic power contest. Because what Howard has done is to redeem the corrupt president by default.

Frank Langella is brilliant as Richard Nixon, just as the sets and background story given to Frost (Michael Sheen) - the trendy hotel interiors and the voluptuous Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) - are more than entertaining. They set a tone within which Nixon's seriousness combined with his self-proclaimed outsider status conspire to render the president statesmanlike.

The finale - a present to the president during a last meeting at his California oceanside mansion - underscores how fragile a reputation is. Howard's choice here gives Nixon a more than human face. Perhaps this was his intention. In any case, the story and the film are very good.

It is hard to see this film gaining any great honours. The concept is too small by general standards. I mean, how to promote the story of the making of a TV interview? What are the moments of tension around which such a scenario could be played out?

In fact, Howard and his writers have done a sterling job. Few would appreciate how difficult was Frost's job. First to conscript John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), who "took a break from LWT to produce David Frost's interviews with disgraced former US President Richard Nixon", according to Wikipedia. Then to get an agent's agreement with the subject.

But the struggle didn't end here. He brought in two experts to help with background and research. One of these, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), would eventually provide the basis for the material that would lead Nixon to confess to a crime. Reston is a curious figure - a Washington insider but a researcher, he's the quintessential controversialist with a rather large axe to grind.

Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) is Reston's foil - a died-in-the-wool investigative journalist who, like Reston, has taken a risk being involved in a project that might either fizzle completely, or win more enemies in a deeply introverted environment where, unlike Frost, he must continue to earn a living after the interviews complete.

On the obverse side is Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a hard-line Republican yes-man with a tendency to stifle debate by any means possible. Brennan almost kills the series of interviews (there are 12 in all).

But Frost and his henchmen fight back, doing a bit of impromptu sleuthing in an effort to curtail Nixon's ability to channel questions into self-serving directions. Nixon wants to reenter the mainstream of politics. Frost wants (and, even more, Reston wants) to collar him. They want an apology.

They get it, of course. The interview is legendary. But the personal relationship struck up between the man who took the biggest risk - David Frost - and the subject with most to gain (and lose) - Richard Nixon - provides avenues that Howard is able to use to cast a few select lights across the otherwise rocky features of a man who, as president, believed that anything was allowed.

And it's all about Italian leather shoes. Who would have guessed.

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