The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The 1970s produced all sorts of controversies, some that ended up positively, others not so much, but one of the biggest was President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.  In a decade when the American people were already skeptical of the government, this scandal involving a government cover-up was just one of many straws that helped break the camel's back.  Nixon's actions infuriated thousands and more likely millions, but because Gerald Ford pardoned him for all his actions he was let off the hook.

Last year, director Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon detailed the story and background of an interview that took place in 1977 between Nixon and British talk show host David Frost with one character's motivation being giving Nixon the trial he never received.  Howard is no stranger to working with true stories -- Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind -- and he is an ideal choice to direct this movie.  Working with a pseudo-documentary style, Howard one-ups himself by having his actors provide voiceovers and even on-screen interviews as the real-life people they're playing, all of it adding to the documentary-like feel to the movie.

Interestingly enough, the movie is based off a play which is based off a series of interviews between Nixon and Frost.  An ongoing interview that took place over 12 sittings might not seem like a well-suited idea for a feature length movie, but as interviews on the DVD discuss, watching these interviews develop is like watching a prize fight.  The description is surprisingly dead-on, and these scenes of long stretches of dialogue have energy and tension to burn -- and that's knowing how they'll end.

It's 1977 and British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) has been chosen to interview former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Nixon's first sit-down session since he resigned following the Watergate scandal.  No one thinks much of Frost or his ability to put Nixon on the spot, but with a team of researchers working with him, the English host lays out a plan of attack for how to question the former president.  But as excitement builds and the interview draws closer (12 sittings totaling 30 hours covering 4 key topics), Frost and his team can't prepare for the wickely intelligent mind that is Richard Nixon.  And with the whole world watching, there's no room for error.

Dealing with a story that is one of the most well-known news stories ever, Howard has his work cut out for him.  The same goes for the actors who are playing real-life people, many of them still alive.  For his performance of Nixon, Langella earned an Oscar nomination, and it's easy to see why.  Nixon was a deeply flawed individual, and the only U.S. president to resign from office so Langella doesn't whitewash any of his background (I don't think Howard would have allowed it).  Langella shows the man for what he was, good and bad.  He was a brilliant mind and intelligent speaker always looking to hold an advantage over those around him.  His Nixon is a master manipulator and isn't beneath pulling some below the belt trickery.

It would be tough to match Langella because his part is so good, but Sheen is a worthy competitor.  His Frost is an interesting character who risks everything to get these interviews on the air.  He has difficulty though because as a TV host, he lacks the credibility of a journalist.  Think of it this way; Jay Leno sits down for a 1-on-1 sit down with President Clinton about his extramarital affairs.  That's basically what this story is although Frost is a pretty smart guy himself.  Sheen's Frost isn't an easy character to get behind -- he's cocky, brash, arrogant -- but maybe more importantly he's an interesting character.  The scenes between him and Langella are at the heart of the movie and move along at a brisk pace.  In the hands of lesser talents, these interview scenes could have dragged on endlessly.

The supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at either.  Rounding out Frost's support team is Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick, a Washington correspondent for National Public Radio, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, an author who'd like nothing more than to take down Nixon, and Matthew Macfayden as John Birt, Frost's friend and producer.  None of the three are huge parts, but the trio makes the most of it.  Platt and Rockwell have some great chemistry in their short scenes together, and Macfayden works well with Sheen.  In Nixon's corner is Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, a former marine and current chief of staff for the former president.  It's another smallish part, but a worthwhile one.  And being a Ron Howard movie, there's lots of recognizable faces, including little brother, Clint.  Also keep an eye out for basically everyone from the NASA war-room in Apollo 13.

Once all the background is laid out over the first 45 minutes, most of the rest of the movie is the interviews between Nixon and Frost with a few quick sidetrips here and there.  If these scenes didn't work, the whole movie would sink right with them.  I've never seen the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, but we get bits and pieces here and there of the first few segments.  The kicker is of course, the finale when Frost gets Nixon all wrapped up and basically traps him into admitting what he did was illegal/wrong.  That final Watergate interview is about 20 minutes long and is the best and strongest part of the movie. 

Howard might not be the flashiest director around -- that sounds a lot more negative than I intended it -- but this quasi-documentary movie has style to spare.  From the clothes to the hair to the sets, it feels very 70s.  The choice to interview his cast as the people they play, years after the interviews looking back on what they accomplished, is an interesting choice that ends up panning out for Howard.  His directing style overall is easygoing here, letting his actors show off and allowing the true story to develop at its own speed.  A movie that's well worth a watch.

Frost/Nixon <----trailer (2008): ***/****

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