Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are swell as David Frost and Richard Nixon in the adapted-from-the-stage-adaptation movie, but I feel -- and I believe the above clips demonstrate -- that these five minutes provide more compelling drama and suspense (and adrenaline) than the entire feature film. Frost presents himself as a much stronger, more flamboyant "prosecutor" than he is in the movie. And watch the incredible range and focus of Nixon's performance: the deliberate rhetorical emphases and repetitions; the flashes of steely anger and startling shifts into unctuousness/condescension when he seems like he could burst into inappropriate laugher or tears or flames; the (strategic?) digressions and circumlocutions; the hand-gestures, head-shakes, eye-blinks; the splintered syntax and mispronunciations-under-pressure when he gets flustered... At least you can tell (unlike certain modern politicians one could name) that he's actually thinking as he talks, sifting through evidence and debate tactics and talking points in his head, not just going blank and letting his lips flap. THIS is an endlessly fascinating character in peak performance mode...
* * * *
"Frost/Nixon" and "Milk" are glossy products of the Hollywood awards season, prestige pictures in the grand red-carpet tradition of fashioning uplifting, larger-than-life entertainments out of semi-fictionalized semi-recent historical events. The thing is, both have been treated far more thrillingly on documentaries that are available on DVD. Think "Frost/Nioxon" provided compelling drama, suspense and astoundingly rich performances? It can't approach the actual interviews , which have just been released as "Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews." Think "Milk" was a moving look at a charismatic public figure and a key period in American civil rights? You have not begun to be moved until you see Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning "The Times of Harvey Milk" (clips after the jump), which is also a more complex, less hagiographic portrait of the man and his heady times.
"Frost/Nixon," directed blandly by Ron Howard and based on a solidly commodifiable Broadway play, shows the shenanigans behind one of the most-watched television showdowns of all time, between a British TV host and a former US president who resigned in the face of impeachment. It seems like there's a dramatic through-line from Edward R. Murrow vs. Joseph McCarthy ("Good Night, and Good Luck") to Frost vs. Nixon to Katie Couric vs. Sarah Palin -- although Murrow didn't directly cross-examine McCarthy on the air.
Watch these clips from "The Times of Harvey Milk" to discover resonant details that didn't make the Hollywood cut.
"Milk" is a traditional, star-driven biopic (it's like "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" with gay politics instead of country music) -- and it's a decent one, directed at long last by Gus Van Sant (whose "Paranoid Park" is by far his best movie of 2008). It features a nearly spot-on, Oscar-bait title performance by Sean Penn in which the actor re-introduces joy to his emotional repertoire for the first time since Jeff Spicoli (1982). Emile Hirsch (Penn's Alexander Supertramp in "Into the Woods") is also a joy to watch, in his puppyfro and gargantuan plastic queer goggles, and Josh Brolin plays an obviously damaged Dan White who's a little more vulnerable and introspective, and less Orange County-crazy-aggressive, than the real guy appears to have been. (James Franco also deserves mention, but really he outdoes himself in "Pineapple Express.") We surely could have done without the self-conscious "shaping" (the "Tosca" stuff, the fakey lovers' reunion on the eve of martyrdom)... but it probably wouldn't be a For Your Consideration picture if it didn't indulge in that kind of pseudo-operatic melodrama. Still, the doc is a richer, more entertaining and enlightening experience in every way.
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
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