Friday, January 9, 2009

Frost/Nixon; Play/Film

Here it comes.

I did enjoy the movie, though I must repeat that the experience was like going back through a book waiting for your favorite bits. But in the end, it lacked the tension and drama of the play. How could it not? Cuts do exactly what they say they do. They cut. What is worse, they cut away from Frost and Nixon, who are the heart of the film, and should have been even more titanically so than they are. Feisty and interesting as the side characters are, they're fluff in comparison.

In a film, of course you'll lose the blocking and so forth, but one major difference between stage and screen is that the stage also used the screen. The backdrop was a bank of television screens that were used to project movement between settings, but also to do closeups during the interviews. This allowed the telling closeups to be juxtaposed with the actual interview, and showed the play's theme of the power of television much better than Sam Rockwell can tell it in the film.

Because Rockwell is also hampered by one of the other major changes in the film, which is that Jim Reston, the angry young researcher, can't be the constantly onstage Greek chorus and commentator. Instead, the side characters all appear in documentary-like cuts, talking to the camera, telling us what happened. What happened to showing, not telling? I have some sympathy here, because it's a story that requires a lot of telling. But I think it would have been better to stick to Reston and pretend he was writing his fifth book or something. Give the film a point of view and a narrator; the best documentaries all do anyway. When even Caroline, Frost's girlfriend, had a spot, I got a little bogged down.

So who do I blame for these little misfires, Ron Howard or Peter Morgan? Eh, I wasn't really unhappy enough to place blame, though I stick to what I said many, many times before anticipating this movie: Howard is good. He is very, very good. Only once would I say he was ever close to great, with Apollo 13. Lightning did not strike twice, but I knew it would be solid, and it was. I think that the pacing and editing could have been much snappier at times, and with less cuts at others. That's all on Howard, ultimately, unless he doesn't get final cut. I would think that a director of his stature does.

There were actually a couple of changes that I really liked within the script. Sheen mentioned that Frost seemed to feel that the film serves him better, and he's right. Because the film can run around to different locations more easily, you get to actually see what Frost was doing, desperately seeking investment and advertising, before the pivotal scene when he hits rock bottom and declares, "I have to work!" In the play, it came across a little as 'what the hell was he doing before?' Then the film actually shows him working and phoning Reston to go get the unpublished transcript that turns out to be the smoking gun. In the play, Reston pops up on the last day with the file on his own, leading you to wonder what the hell Frost was doing while he 'worked.' It's much better development of Frost. When I watched the play, that was a huge hole for me in the Frost characterization, and all the worse because Nixon's motivations hang together so easily.

I can't get over how completely Frank Langella inhabits his role as Nixon. It's like Helen Mirren as the queen; you really start thinking you're watching the actual person. It's harder to get that feeling from Michael Sheen's Frost if you're American (and young), but Sheen's intense eyes really make his performance. The film's closeups unfortunately restrict appreciation of their body language, which contrasted so brilliantly. Will either get loaded with accolades? Sheen certainly not, bridesmaid again. Langella? As a Republican icon of sorts? I thought he might, but Sean Penn looks like he'll take 'em all.

Among the excellent supporting cast (Sam Rockwell, a funny Oliver Platt, a steely Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall), I was most surprised by Matthew Macfadyen, whose great big, sad eyes and beautiful voice did as much for John Birt as they failed to do for Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley P&P. (Sorry, but that's how I felt.) Birt was a rather floaty role in the play, not having a solid presence or purpose next to the fiery and funny Reston. Here, he had the lovely stillness that I was wishing for a couple of posts ago: Frost's rock in a storm. It made his celebratory naked dash into the ocean all the funnier for me.

I leave you with one joke from the play that was edited down in the movie, but got one of the best laughs onstage:

Jim Reston: Where's David?
Bob Zelnick: At a movie premiere.
Reston: What, the night before we start taping? What premiere?
Zelnick: The Slipper and the Rose.
Reston: [pause] The Cinderella movie?
Zelnick: He's the executive producer. [It more or less ended here in the film.]
Reston: [in horror] The one with Richard Chamberlain singing, 'Ding diddy ding ding'!?

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