Frost/Nixon: An Interview with a Vampire

Frank Langella seethes and pulsates with cunning as the deposed president in 'Frost/Nixon', a far cry from the grinning cowboy executive Josh Brolin presented in 'W'.


Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-01-23 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-12-05 (Limited release)

It says something about the fading days of the George W. Bush presidency -- a more surreal time in the nation’s history would be difficult to conjure -- that it takes a film about one of the stranger late chapters of the Watergate story to give us a sense of historical perspective. In Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s perfectly palatable film of Peter Morgan’s Broadway drama about David Frost’s historic 1977 interview with ex-president Richard Nixon, the parallels to our current times are striking. From imperial executive overreach to paranoid defensiveness, cartoon-skewed media image, and a scorched-earth attitude towards enemies (real and imagined), the end of the Nixon and Bush II eras have more in common than is comfortable for the average American liberal to comprehend.

A great part of that difference is Watergate. Whereas the nation of the 1970s was ready to draw and quarter their president in the court of public opinion (the ubiquitous airings of Congressional investigations like televised payback), the America of today seems perfectly willing to allow Bush II to ride off to Crawford, unmolested by legislative inquisitors. The differing attitudes toward how people view the end of an unpopular two-term conservative who mistook the presidency for a monarchy can easily be explained by character. The two men may have had similar effects on the office and the nation, but they couldn't have been more different on a personal level. Nixon sweated and cursed over the idea that the nation's liberal elite were looking down on him and his supporters (a dark and furious fixation that seethes out of the deposed president in Frost/Nixon); Bush II cracked open a nonalcoholic beer and blithely stuck to his guns.

This year has already brought us Oliver Stone's W, a sympathetic portrait of benign malevolence that further shrunk in stature a man who already seems to have disappeared from the landscape. For all that film's faults, it at least understood the ultimate smallness of its subject. Nixon may have been mercilessly parodied over the years, but if anything all those caricatures almost exaggerated his place in history. When Stone tackled Nixon, he brought in Anthony Hopkins, while W stars Josh Brolin (an astounding actor, possibly even Hopkins' superior, but nobody's icon). The film's air of bouncy satire sits easily on its subject; even if the result is rarely as on-target as intended, the effect is nevertheless one of diminishment. When Bush II stands on that aircraft carrier deck announcing 'Mission accomplished', he seems a chuckling fool; when Frost/Nixon shows Nixon departing the White House in disgrace, flinging his arms up in defiance, he’s like a monarch departing for exile in a distant land.

As Nixon, Frank Langella brings a wily intelligence to his portrayal of a man so caricatured by decades of political satire that he had almost ceased to be real. His portrayal is not the note-perfect imitation of its subject that Brolin, with his studious mannerisms, was able to capture. On stage, Langella was a stooped clown, muffling and slowing his enunciation while still booming out the words in a manner that the real Richard Nixon never seemed to. When you watch video of Nixon, it becomes clear how distorted the man's image has become, his voice more direct and clear than we're used to hearing with his imitators and the eyes piercingly intelligent; the sweaty upper lip, though, that's a constant. On screen, however, Langella plays more subtle notes, finding the easy humor and vulnerability in one of American history’s greatest villains. It’s a tough act to pull off, given that Nixon never had the padding of boyish charm and monied self-confidence that help buoy Bush in W; his needs are all right there on the surface.

Langella's Nixon probably occupies less screen time than his counterpart, the journalist David Frost, but his presence hangs over the entire film. Faithfully adapted by the playwright himself and opened up from its rather spare stage setting only modestly (Howard smartly stays out of the way, refusing to overdirect a crackling screenplay that doesn't need the help), Frost/Nixon tracks the real story of how Frost, a jet-setting TV show host looking to bolster his journalistic credentials, snagged a series of lengthy interviews with Nixon in his post-Watergate years. The interviews, in which Frost -- played by an excellent Michael Sheen as a blow-dried con artist specializing in vapid grins and slightly dazed expressions -- is bolstered by a team of experienced researchers, appear a train wreck at first.

The thinly stretched Frost is deftly outmaneuvered time after time by a crafty Nixon trying to burnish his legacy, collect an easy paycheck (the frank bartering for money here packs a sting, even for the most cynical audience members), and escape any further opprobrium for his role in Watergate. This all to the fury and frustration of his researchers, one of whom, James Reston (Sam Rockwell), is looking in essence for a televised conviction of a man he believes left the country mired in doubt and self-recrimination. It's not hard to buy into Reston's view of Nixon as vampire, the man who sucks America dry and seems impossible to knock off. That is, until a crack appears in Nixon's armor, and Frost -- who suddenly appears just as cagey as the man he's facing -- goes in for the stake-in-the-heart kill.

Much of Frost/Nixon is played like a blood match, with both principals retiring to their corners, where their seconds cajole and harangue them to get back out there and take care of business. It's all as high stakes as any of the fights in Howard's Cinderella Man. On one side is Frost, hemorrhaging money and seemingly committing career suicide while his subject runs out the clock by blathering away in an uninterruptible litany of resume padding. On the other is Nixon, ducking and weaving like a master, Frost's soft jabs glancing off his well-hated hide. It's just an interview, but everything is at stake.

Clearly, it was ultimately still just an interview, no matter how revelatory. Morgan's screenplay makes Frost/Nixon the satisfying political drama it is not by exaggerating the importance of the event at its center (the usual tactic of historical film), but by using it as a convenient window into the mind of its subject. While Sheen probably makes off with the better performance, his Frost is a more unknowable subject, just another amiable face who's always reassuring everybody how great they are while darting out of unfinished meetings. As frequently lacking in verisimilitude it might be, Langella's Nixon is the real thing. The cunning evasions and pointed queries, the stifling insecurity battling with a veteran's confidence, and the refusal to believe that his time in the spotlight was truly over; this is the Nixon of history.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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