Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Some random thoughts about Frost/Nixon that I posted over at Cinevox.

Saw Frost/Nixon and Milk today, and I suppose, if I am able, I'd like to collect thoughts on both into fuller reviews, though I feel pressed for and cant call either of them great.

Random thoughts I may be trying to tease out about Frost/Nixon.

--The continual dumbing down of films. The use of voice-over and/or (in this case) interviews to comment on the action we are about to see (such as when the press agent says he calls in the middle of the night to see if the person will take the call and thus gauge how desperate they are) or have just seen (such as when producer tells Frost how Nixon is trying to get in his head with pre-camera banter). It's bizarre really. I know I constantly kvetch about this in reviews, but it's just gotten to the point where films don't trust you to get the point of any scene without a running commentary and the film that provides it is considered clear rather than ham-handed.

--The film as a Ron Howard auteur pic, particularly in regards to Nixon's final speech about Frost having the gift of "likability" and the recurring reference to Frost as an "entertainer" as a derogatory term. The nice guy who wants to be taken seriously. The Cambodia speech as an underlined parallel between Vietnam and Iraq with the "bamboo Pentagon" serving as a metaphor for WMDs struck me as the film showing its (or Howard's) true intentions, and my realization that while Howard gives me the most reductive and simplified of narratives, that makes me distrust any sort of political or ideological point he might want to make (or include as a passing potshot).
And I say this as someone who despised the Bush presidency.

--The use of archival footage (this, like the taped narration as commentary, was an issue in Milk, too). The thing I found most exceedingly strange about this film was how much of the screen time was taken up recreating the interviews themselves rather than building the story about how they came about. One supposes (wrongly, I increasingly think) that as we move into a period where many historical events that pre-date current audiences were nevertheless modern enough to be televised or have some sort of video archival image that this would effect how pseudo-historical narratives are crafted more than it actually does. I think if people lived through it, they care more about the emotional tenor than the surface accuracy of an account, and if people didn't, they want to be told what to think about it rather than actually examine or think about footage themselves.

--This film is just remarkably confused. Nixon is portrayed as either smart or an idiot, either saddled by guilt or hopelessly obtuse. Now, certainly people can and do embody contradictions, but the film relies too much on ambiguity to make Nixon's character opaque rather than complex. One key example--Nixon tells an aide it might be helpful to know what Frost's team is thinking in preparation for the interview and proposes bugging his hotel. When the aide looks shocked, Nixon backs off and says he was "joking." Yet Nixon isn't portrayed throughout as being particularly sensitive to tone or capable of making such a joke at his own expense. So is it a cover? Or a glimpse of the "real" person getting through? Too much of the film is garnered around ambiguity rather than insight.

--The film begins with a claim that Frost's one advantage was that he knew television and it was his understanding of the media that allowed him to get what others failed to get. Yet the film totally fails to follow through on this, alternately suggesting that it was Reston's diligence that uncovered the information, Nixon's own tiredness of hiding or evading the truth (and Frost just happening to be there at the opportune moment), or just dumb luck that made the interviews a success. The film is being advertised as depicting a sort of early precursor to combative (or even "gotcha") journalism" but Reston's speech immediately after the interview totally undercuts this premise, claiming that it wasn't, in fact, anything that was said in the interviews but the image of a harrowed Nixon that was important and that the people who understood that weren't necessarily Frost (who spends the whole time trying to prepare in hopes of getting a "gotcha" confession on the record) nor even Reston himself but some of the other members of the team.

The conjunction of bullets 2,3, and 4 left me, coming out of the theater with the sense, not that I disagreed with this film's argument, but that I thought this was a film that didn't know what it's argument actually was. Howard has this eye for interesting or dramatic stories, the popularity to attract top-flight talent to them, and the humility, common sense, or temperament to mostly stay out of the way of his film. In that respect, he reminds me of a current day John Huston, sort of managing a set rather than imposing his artistic vision on a film.

I certainly didn't despise this film, and it's nice enough in a movie-of-the-week sort of fashion, but I'm genuinely puzzled--not just disappointed, since I don't get my hopes up anymore--by this year's slate of Oscar nominations. Do people actually think this is a good movie? In either sense? Well crafted or insightful?

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