Thursday, January 01, 2009
When we saw Milk, I thought that Sean Penn had the best actor Oscar locked up. But last weekend, we saw Frost/Nixon, and now I'm thinking Sean Penn should be worried. Frank Langella did a fantastic job of embodying Richard Nixon, in what must have been an ultimate actor's challenge, bringing a well-known and widely-charicatured historical figure to life on screen without merely doing an impression. Nixon had such signature characteristics -- the sweaty face, the five o'clock shadow, the distinctive speech patterns -- that you couldn't not do them, and yet doing them could so easily veer into charicature. But Langella is flawless, completely natural. And Michael Sheen gives an equally strong performance, perfectly personifying the talk-show personality David Frost. Sheen gives Frost such a buoyant lightness that I almost had the feeling his feet weren't touching the ground, and yet he also conveyed a sense of hidden depth in moments when Frost was as keen as any sharply-focused entrepeneur with a vision, but hiding it behind a sunny face. The drama of the film comes not from Nixon's confessions (we all know what's coming there), but in how such a highly improbable confrontation came to occur. The film by no means vindicates Nixon, but it does make him human and understandable if not sympathetic. The cross-purposes of what Frost (and his team) were hoping to accomplish and what Nixon was hoping to accomplish makes for good psychological drama, brought to an unexpected and illuminating juncture when a drunk Nixon calls Frost the night before their fateful interview. Director Ron Howard has done an admirable job bring this stage drama to film in a skillfully visual way, and for bringing out the best in his two fine stars. This film is definitely in the hunt for some Oscar gold.