Thursday, January 08, 2009

Frost/Nixon vs. The Dark Knight
(or why Hollywood should embrace its inner blockbuster)

A few weeks ago, I saw Frost/Nixon. I was excited for this movie, as I always love good political dramas, the acting was getting great reviews and it was about a period in history I wasn't that familiar with but seemed riveting. And as I left the theater I felt...disappointed. Not because it was a bad movie--it was not--but because it could and should have been so much better. As Oscar season approaches, Frost/Nixon had made many Top 10 lists and seems a lock for numerous Oscar nominations. Now, if Frost/Nixon gets nominated for Best Picture and/or Best Director over The Dark Knight and Christopher Nolan, there's something seriously wrong with the industry. Frost/Nixon never becomes as good as it should be, whereas The Dark Knight lived up to the massive hype and then some, becoming one of the most exciting, if not provocative movies of the year (if not decade). The Oscars have always had it in a bit for the unabashed blockbuster. Even when films like Gladiator and Braveheart won (both of which I loved) there was an excuse of them being historical dramas, blood-stained period pieces. 

This is not to pick on Frost/Nixon, which is still one of the better movies of the year, but to say that if this movie, which was not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, gets an Oscar nod over The Dark Knight (which, in my opinion, was), it's simple bias towards comic book films and money. Here are my thoughts on Frost/Nixon (SPOILERS ABOUND):

--The directing was workmanlike at best. There was never a sense of Ron Howard making his material better, rather it was simple point and shoot. There is intrigue and passion, but it comes from the performances and the real life historical drama. Compare any scene in Frost/Nixon to the armored car chase in TDK (for my money, one of the top 5 action scenes ever), the bank robbery, the Joker's escape from prison, the Joker's home movies...TDK is just filled with scenes where Christopher Nolan makes what could have been a routine action movie come alive. The five seconds after his escape when the Joker is leaning out of the cop car, lights flashing in the distance, chilled me more than any of the verbal fireworks in F/N.

--Frost/Nixon is filled with fight analogies. As David Frost prepares for his final interviews, the dialogue practically sounds like it comes from Rocky. But here's the problem: Frost never seems to give a damn. Sure at the end he seems to care, and spends all of one night cramming, but in the weeks and months leading up to the interviews it's all about ratings, all about money. You don't care as much if Frost gets Nixon to admit his guilt, because for Frost it feels like the interview itself is the victory. And once Nixon does (sort of) own up, the movie basically ends. There's no sense of how the moment affected history, and Frost doesn't really relish the victory. Other than a brief epilogue, there's no closure, and you get the feeling that it didn't really change all that much. Do you think Rocky would have been nearly as dramatic if the Italian Stallion fought Apollo Creed just for the payday? Instead Frost comes off like a student who stayed up all night studying for a class he slept through the whole semester, and miraculously got a B+. 

--I'm a big fan of Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt, but they're just out of place in this movie. They come off as too silly, undercutting the seriousness of the film's tone and setting and its impact on history. Rockwell is supposed to have a dramatic role, but I just never bought him in it. Platt is funny as always, but one thing this movie did not need was comic relief. Trade Rockwell for, say Mark Ruffalo, and I think the role would have been better suited.

--The acting, especially between the two leads, is terrific. Though I actually felt Michael Sheen did a more convincing job with Frost than Langella with Nixon. Yes the accent and mannerisms are great, but I never felt like I was watching Richard M. Nixon, I felt I was watching Frank Langella's impersonation of Nixon. Still, Hollywood seems to love good impersonations, and Langella will undoubtedly get an Oscar nod.

In the end, Frost/Nixon is a good movie, not a great one, yet it looks to become one of the most decorated only for the reasons that it seems like it should be. Yet two of the most commercial films of the year--Wall-E and The Dark Knight--were also two of the best, easily, and far better that F/N. Yet it seems F/N will get more Oscar nods simply because it has the pedigree to. It is less than the sum of its parts, and the only reason I've thought about it sense seeing it was because I'm depressed at the seeming inevitability of the awards it will reap. If Hollywood wants to reward true creative genius, it should do so regardless of whether or not its characters wear a costume and face paint. Passion and emotion are so difficult to provoke in a film, and the two films I was most passionate about were a film where the lead character wears a cape, and an animated film about a little hunk of junk who barely speaks. But ask me what movies I'll be talking about in 10 years, and I'll show you my well-worn Wall-E and The Dark Knight DVDs.

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Blogger Stuart Neville said...

I've had this debate with various people over the years, and I might sound a little snobbish, but it isn't the Academy's (or any of the other award-giving bodies) job to honour films that have achieved the most successfully - big box-office is its own reward - rather it should highlight those exceptional movies that are brilliant in themselves, however modest their budgets or returns were. That's why the likes of The House of Sand and Fog get the Oscar love, and why Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby trounced Scorsese's The Aviator, and why Miyazaki's Spirited Away won over Finding Nemo.

BUT ... this year is the exception. The Dark Knight did massive business, but it did it in such an uncompromising fashion, took so many risks, pushed commercial cinema audiences so far, that I feel if it doesn't triumph at the Oscars this year, then the Academy will have failed in its remit. That remit is to reward those who push the boundaries of cinema and produce something brilliant, and for my money, no other movie has come close to TDK in that regard.

With the possible exception of Wall-E, of course, but that's another story.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

That should have said "achieved the most commercially". D'oh!

3:47 PM  
Blogger Daryl said...

I'd have to agree with you Jason on Frost/Nixon. I enjoyed it but it did lack something and Ron Howard is probably to blame. I was expecting insight into an important episode in American political history, a real tour de force experience, to feel like I was really watching what transpired - maybe Oliver Stone should have directed.

The Dark Knight was my favourite movie of last year and is such a triumph in movie making, script writing and direction, for it to miss out on a Best Picture nomination is a travesty. Fingers crossed for Heath and Wall E, deserved Oscar winners if there were any.

P.S. I watched The Reader before Frost/Nixon and preferred it - Kate Winslet's performance was amazing.

6:44 AM  

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