CAPTION: Kevin Bacon tells Frank Langella, “You are not a horse.”
Mr. Nixon, It’s Time for Your Close-up, 18 December 2008
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
Ron Howard’s competent film adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play (who also scripted and co-produced here) dramatizes the famous Frost/Nixon interviews from 1977. At one point in the film, Kevin Bacon’s character explains to Frank Langella’s Nixon that a portion of the interview will focus on “Nixon the man”. To which Nixon retorted, “As opposed to what? Nixon the horse?” Of course what was on everyone’s mind at the time was Watergate and how American was never able to give Nixon the trial they so desperately wanted. Through the unlikely Frost interviews, the American people finally heard the truth behind the scandal–straight from the horse’s mouth.
Morgan’s source material translates smoothly onto film. Much as he did with The Queen, he mixes a behind the scenes look at the immediate time period leading up to the historical event and closes with an almost word-for-word dramatization of said event. Also, like The Queen, we have the excellent Michael Sheen on board, who after playing Tony Blair now takes on the mannerisms of the legendary British talk-show host and man-about-town David Frost. Director Ron Howard nicely interweaves archival news footage, faux-post interviews with the secondary players, and the dramatic reenactments of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews. Howard’s studied but pedestrian style of direction lends itself well to this type of docudrama as he allows the actual events to speak for themselves and the fine performances to shine on their own. Though it takes quite awhile to get where it’s going, the final interview where Frost takes Nixon head-on about the Watergate cover-up is a payoff well worth the wait.
Of course the most fascinating aspect of the film is Frank Langella’s portrayal of a shamed and swollen Richard Nixon. He plays him as a fallen man desperate for an act of contrition but still in too deep with his old trickery and slick ways. His performance, and the way it connects with the audience, is wonderfully layered. On one level, we have an aged actor thought to be well past his prime firing back on all cylinders in a renaissance role that will likely lead to a showering of award nominations. The way the film reduces his performance to that one lingering close-up after being steamrolled by Frost on the last day of the interview leaves a lasting impression. But it also works on another level as it is meant to represent the reduction of Nixon’s political life to that one lingering close-up on the television monitor when he realized it’s all over for him. The audience members who remember watching the interviews and can picture the actual close-up they saw on their TV screens are now allowed to share a communion with the audience members who weren’t even born yet and now only have a memory of Langella’s face on the silver screen. In that sense, Langella truly became Nixon, and his performance will not soon be forgotten.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database: