Page Two: Fuel and Frost
Nixon film and doc review responses offer different kinds of surprises
A friend of mine teaches a class at USC, where each week he shows a film that has not yet opened theatrically and has significant members of the creative team – producer, director, writer, and/or star(s) – there to discuss it in a Q&A after the screening.
Visiting L.A. earlier this year with my son, I was a bit disappointed when I learned the film being screened the night we were there was Ron Howard's new film, Frost/Nixon, adapted from Peter Morgan's stage play. I'm not usually a fan of films adapted from theatre to begin with: All the ways the play is opened up to breathe to be more cinematic too often come across mostly as ways the play was opened up to breathe.
I do fondly remember the Nixon interviews conducted by David Frost, incredibly powerful and meaningful television at the time. Three decades or so later, as much as I love popular culture, this was one of the few important media events of the time that inspired absolutely no interest in me. I have no great fascination with Frost while, if anything, I'm more than filled up thinking about Richard Nixon as an individual and as president.
As was commonly said to me during a much earlier time, "May the Lord Baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind" was again appropriate. As soon as the film began, it vibrated with some of those extra qualities by which cinema can be more than just itself, greater than the sum of all its parts. Often and expectedly, this intense buzzing wrapping my body usually dissipates early on, allowing me to just watch the film on the screen. Frost/Nixon never let up; its electricity never turned down.
There is probably a very long list of reasons why this film shouldn't work. The story of David Frost getting the first television interview with the then-disgraced ex-President Nixon seems inherently static, resistant to all and any cinematic sweetening. So why does it work so brilliantly? An extraordinary cast helps. Just the supporting cast includes Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, and Sam Rockwell. Michael Sheen as David Frost gives an inspired performance, subtle and rich in detail and nuance. Given Frost's larger-than-life TV persona, it would have been easy to lose the man to image and memory, but Sheen doesn't. If the cast was less outstanding, Frank Langella's brilliant turn as Nixon would have overshadowed all else, making for an almost embarrassingly lopsided movie. Instead, the script, direction, cinematography, score, and especially the actors provide just the right context for Langella's performance. Trying to describe it or evoke it by comparing it to other great film performances is like dancing about architecture. Too often the most praised film performances are the most theatrical or purposefully serious. Langella doesn't simply mimic Nixon, nor does he merely foster memories; instead, he offers a multidimensional character.
Even describing it as "multidimensional," though, seems lamely limiting. Langella is Nixon. Which is not to say simply that he creates a fine, detailed portrayal of former American President Richard Nixon, exiled and disgraced by his impeachment. The performance is not so restrained as to be restricted by impersonation. Instead, the actor realizes Nixon as something more than just the historical figure and the man: He overwhelms viewers by creating a meta-character, one greater than life – yet also one that is very real. More human than theatrical, more eloquent than outrageous, Langella's Nixon ends up detailing the morally complex and too frequently contradictory imprint of Nixon – who Nixon was and how we remember Nixon. Neither beatifying nor demeaning, the performance conveys a most complex individual who contains many layers and all kinds of contradictions. A visionary whose humanity diminished him, Langella's Nixon is a politician of impressive, often brilliant intelligence unfortunately crippled by a catalog of emotional insecurities – one who once looked to the stars but also one so diseased with petty paranoia that he ended up looking down and blinded.
I went expecting nothing. My son and I ended up talking excitedly as we wandered the campus for some time after the movie. I don't want to raise expectations too high, despite my over-the-top enthusiasm here. The good taste and educated cinematic sensibilities of so many readers usually leaves them uneasy with any kind of critical hysteria; however, my record of excessive critical exhortations should have vaccinated readers against taking my opinions too literally.
While writing about film, I can't help but address the overwhelmingly negative response to Josh Rosenblatt's review of the documentary Fuel, currently playing in town. Even though the review questioned none of the film's opinions or the positions it took, Rosenblatt was still faulted for not strongly and overtly endorsing them. Rosenblatt's criticisms were directed toward Fuel as a film, especially as a documentary. Documentaries once pretended toward the objective, usually at least trying to be fair in presenting both sides of an issue, but now it is more common for them to be – clearly and without guise – personal opinion essays. The review's criticisms went entirely in that direction, the point being made that, despite good information and more-than-reasonable political positions, the failure of Fuel was as a film. Finding it seriously flawed cinematically, Rosenblatt also felt that, as documentary, it was way too over-the-top and heavy-handed.
Here I could consider that the hostility in so much of this landslide of angry responses erupted because those responding felt that the film's intentions, politics, and content trumped any other concerns, especially Rosenblatt's petty criticisms. There was outrage that rather than promote the film, he criticized it, that rather than champion it for its eloquence and ideology, he let its petty weaknesses dominate his review.
These responses made it clear that, in all decency, he should have joined chorus with its politics and championed it for its intentions while aiding it in gaining an audience because of the importance of its message. Along the way, some praised it as a film, while Rosenblatt's review was trivialized and dismissed because his criticisms were ego-driven, prissily academic, and/or irrelevant. Again, a comprehensive view of these responses would find me more than startled. There were calls to at least censor him if not outright fire him. The Chronicle's long history of not just coverage but often overt editorializing in favor of alternative fuels and our clear concerns with oil-centric transportation planning and decisions, as well as offering a range of readers' voices on these issues in "Postmarks" and online, were negated by this one negative review that didn't even question or criticize its politics but rather the filmmaking.
Some of the letters and comments were quite dramatic, with one suggesting that propaganda films (as one can comfortably categorize such personal-advocacy documentaries) are more valuable than all other films (as long as one agrees with the film's positions, I'm guessing, though this stipulation was not explicitly stated). Given the intensity of so many of the responses, the assumption has to be that readers felt this film's messages to be so important that the goal had to be to get it seen by as many people as possible. Any hesitation over the film or criticism of it that might serve to dissuade any potential audience members was therefore not just political but also inherently reactionary, not just dismissing its message but arguing in favor of Big Oil.
Once again it turns out that the Chronicle staff trusts its overall readership more than readers trust one another. The idea that so many of our readers rigidly follow our opinions – going to see what we like, not going to see what we criticize – is so obviously and completely ridiculous to us that its even unspoken assumption in any argument is pointless. But more than that, in the many and complicated ways it is supposed to work, the Chronicle so clearly did this time.
We assume a diverse and educated readership that – rather than being naive, trusting, and eager to be led – is cynical, questioning, and more than comfortable in dismissing or even attacking opinions the Chronicle espouses. But even more than that, we count on the discord and the dissent. This paper encourages as broad a reader response as readers wish to offer. Short of libel, in printing responses, we prioritize the critical, even when they are also abusive. Having concerns with the vehemence and narrow focus of some of the responses, I will often respond in turn. But this paper and this column never advocate quiet or compliance; we attack rather than promote censorship and believe in the value of a wide range of opinions rather than believing in or offering one sole, authoritative voice.
Finally, when all is said and done, it is more than likely that far more people went to see Fuel because of the controversy than would have if a Chronicle review had found it good or even great. We trust the process, the paper, and our readers. We value debate and encourage dissent.