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Frost/Nixon works on several levels. It’s an underdog story where the scrappy reporters try to take down a president. It’s a caper film as the heroes investigate and put the pieces together in order to pull the rug out from under Nixon. It’s a showbiz tale where the gang tries to put on the big show. It does not work, however, as something larger, an allegory for modern times or a blistering critique of a corrupt system.

It has a light, breezy style that makes it go down easily and that helps make for a pleasant experience taking it at face value. It’s a pretty neat story. British talk show host David Frost makes a play to boost his career by landing an interview with Richard Nixon. It’s 1977, three years after Nixon’s resignation and pardon, and a big interview covering Watergate topics could potentially be a huge success. Frost has to court Nixon and sell the interviewers to the networks. Meanwhile a crack staff of investigators combs over the records of the Nixon administration, looking for things to nail him on. Finally there’s the high-stakes confrontation. Nixon wants to repair his image while Frost needs some big revelations to sell the program and not lose his own shirt in the process.

This all works quite well, in a rather conventional way. Frost has to improve his light interview style to get anything good out of Nixon. Selling the interviews proves hard. Nixon prepares for the interviews to throw Frost off his game and dominate him. Frost’s researchers are a funny diversion with quick wits and a desperate desire to nail Nixon.

The problem is that in the whole scheme of things, I just didn’t really care. Maybe it’s a generational thing where merely seeing Nixon apologize on camera fails to pull at something deep inside me. I didn’t live in that tumultuous time. But even knowing what I know of that time period, probably more than most of my generation, I still felt lost in its history. It needed a lot more historical context to make me care as much as the film wanted, more than Nixon filling a garden variety movie villain role where you want him to fall simply because he’s the villain. And maybe that makes sense, because from what I piece together the interviews weren’t the success the film portrays but more akin to an opening of Al Capone’s vault of its time. In actuality it really wasn’t important.

Frost/Nixon garnered a variety of Oscar nominations, most of them undeserved. The film does have some great acting. Frank Langella plays Nixon and grabbed a Best Actor nomination and that is the one that I’m fine with. He gives a good portrayal that doesn’t stray into caricature. I also enjoyed Michael Sheen as Frost, though he never really found a spot in the awards show orbit, neither in Lead or Supporting. Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfayden, and Oliver Platt as Frost’s team are also thoroughly enjoyable. On the acting side, I wasn’t fond of Rebecca Hall as Frost’s girlfriend and I kind of hated Kevin Bacon, playing an adviser to Nixon.

On the other hand, it’s simply not Best Picture material. There were many films that were better than Frost‘s successes and without its failures that also made me care. The lack of historical context can be traced directly to Oscar-nominated director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan. The tone is too light for a film with high ambitions. Plus the technique of the characters speaking to the camera as if they were getting interviewed for a documentary doesn’t work and feels gimmicky. It also got an editing nomination, which I don’t have much to say about except that it didn’t help any of the problems I had with the film.

It feels like Oceans Eleven with a purpose – a purpose that fails. Without the self-provided weight it works to entertain simply on the back of its interesting characters and mostly intriguing plot. Good things, no doubt, but nothing more special than a pretty well-spun yarn.

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Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

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