Monday, December 29, 2008

Frost-Nixon and Gran Torino

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?” David Frost (Michael Sheen) asks Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Frost/Nixon.

"I'm saying that when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal!” says Nixon.

Spoken like a true Nixon-era Clint Eastwood character. Substitute “a cop” for “the President,” and can’t you hear Dirty Harry saying the same thing?

Nixon never changed his mind, remaining unrepentant to the end, but Eastwood’s vigilantes know better now. Like Bill Munny of The Unforgiven, Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski is not just a lot older than Harry Callaghan; he’s a lot sadder and less self-righteous too. And though he’s still a hero, he’s also a goat, a funhouse-mirror version of the actor’s youthful antiheroes.

At first, we laugh at the retired Detroit autoworker as he snarls and growls at his disrespectful grandkids and his suspiciously foreign Hmong neighbors, surrounding himself with a protective circle of empty beer cans and blanketing anyone who approaches with insults and racial slurs. But by the end of this tightly constructed entertainment, we’re laughing more with Walt than at him.

His reluctant rapprochement with his neighbors may be a foregone conclusion, but Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk make it fun to watch as it plays out. They also make the cliché of kids who melt the heart of a closed-off old man feel fresh, letting us see the core values the gimlet-eyed geezer rejects in his own relatives and finds in the family next door. And, though we know Walt will defeat the gang that threatens his newfound friends, they keep us in suspense about just how he’ll do it, right up to the satisfyingly melodramatic end.

Frost/Nixon also keeps the suspense cranked up. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play for the screen, specializes in dramatizing important historical figures and turning points. He likes to focus on the relationship between two people at the center of the storm: Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen; Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his Scottish doctor in The Last King of Scotland; and guess who in Frost/Nixon.

The writer portrays the two men as fighting for their professional lives, each trying to use the other to salvage his reputation. Nixon sees the interview as a chance to burnish his legacy as president by focusing on his foreign policy triumphs. Frost, a TV personality whose star is falling, sees it as his chance to climb back to the top of the ratings – but only if he can get Nixon to confess to having broken the law by having ordered and then covered up the Watergate break-in.

Sheen and Langella do excellent work, reprising the roles they played onstage. Sheen looks nothing like Frost, yet he recreates his strangled diction and natty bearing while hinting at his underlying insecurity. Langella brings a pitch-black intensity to the role. Hunched over like a hibernating bear, his black eyes radiating wary intelligence, his Nixon is a formidable foe.

It’s a riveting show, but two questions nagged at me afterward: did Nixon really make that drunken late-night phone call to Frost, laying out the movie’s themes so perfectly? And why would he suddenly decide to confess to having been part of a cover-up, after having worked so hard and long to deny it? The answer to both questions turns out to be the same: He didn’t. The phone call and the confession were Morgan’s inventions.

The phony phone call bothers me mainly as bad drama: it’s the sort of intrusive exposition that takes us out of the moment, like the “interviews” Howard films with the actors playing Frost’s research team, who talk to the camera about the story as we watch it unfold.

The fake confession bothers me as bad history. In a story that’s centered around a battle to land a confession, inventing a confession that never happened feels like a significant cheat.

Howard’s directing can be heavy-handed in other ways, too. He often sends the camera zooming in to search for the truth in somebody’s iris or to ogle Frost’s mistress, Caroline Graham (Rebecca Hall), who gets way too much screen time for someone whose main purpose is to brighten up the scenery.

Still, both movies are well-made machines, entertaining while they last and thought-provoking enough to give you something to talk about afterward. Just don’t mistake either one for the truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment