The London Film Festival kicked off on fine form with the world premiere of Frost/Nixon. In an adaptation of Peter Morgan's stage play, director Ron Howard brings to the screen the true story of disgraced president Richard Nixon's television interview with David Frost. The virulently reactionary Nixon resigned while undergoing impeachment for his role covering up an illegal spying campaign on political opponents. Pardoned by his appointed successor as president, Gerald Ford, it is left up to Frost, lightweight British television presenter, to extract the admission of guilt the world awaited.
It is both one of the pleasures and the problems with such films that the main parts become an extended impression, but Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen go beyond this in a brilliantly nuanced dramatic confrontation. In fact Sheen's Frost is reminiscent of his role as Tony Blair in The Deal: a man whose fundamental lack of substance ends up suiting a political moment presented as turning on soundbites.
The film is very funny and grippingly cinematic. That such dramatic weight comes from the personal confrontation of the two men displays the limits of the film's politics. Although avowedly condemning Nixon's actions, the tragic flaws of the nation's leader are made to overshadow the history of the remarkable social upheavals that characterised his presidency. One also cannot help but wonder if Frost, who managed an entire interview with Margaret Thatcher without once mentioning the poll tax, was really tough enough to score the knock-out blow against Nixon, or if, in apologising on national television, the old trickster was once again practising self-reinvention via the media.
Not screened until after Socialist Review went to press, Oliver Stone's biopic W. hoped to influence the US's elections by cutting between key events from Bush's first term in office to his hell-raising youth. Stone is a far more radical filmmaker than Howard, and it will remain to be seen how far his film goes beyond personal psychology in asking how an idiot gets to lead the world's most powerful nation. At perhaps the other end of the spectrum, Steven Soderbergh's five-hour Che promises to capture the idealism that surrounds the legendary figure. There is also the Gonzo documentary which pieces together the life and work of counter-cultural journalist Hunter S Thompson.
One of the festival's scheduled debates is on "Cinema under George Bush", and it would seem that these historical biographies signal a turn in political Hollywood after the disappointing box office for last year's Iraq war films and before the current economic crisis has a real chance to appear onscreen.
However, the interest in history, and radical history in particular, goes beyond Hollywood. Forthcoming films to be released, and reviewed in this magazine, include The Baader Meinhof Complex, Waltz with Bashir and Hunger. Il Divo sees Italian Paolo Sorrentino, more notable previously for style than substance, attempt to encompass the historical sweep of post-war Italy through the life of seven-time prime minister - and alleged Mafia collaborator - Giulio Andreotti. Citizen Havel documents the journey of Czech playwright Václav Havel from revolutionary to president.
New British films include Genova, a tale of family distress in the Italian city by Britain's most interesting film director, Michael Winterbottom. Awaydays adapts Kevin Sampson's book about football hooligans, and while its study of male youth in the violent blight of mid-1980s Birkenhead has questionable gender politics, its working class characters are refreshingly creative and conscious. Its stylish view of downturn Britain will make an interesting comparison with Of Time and the City, the latest film from the veteran cinematic poet of working class Liverpool, Terence Davies.
Also of interest are the new digital restorations of Kevin Bronlow's Winstanley, a recreation of the fight for a world of equality by the most radical wings of the English revolution, and Touki Bouki, a 35 year old film from Senegal about the politics of immigration.
The fortnight proves that movies full of life and thought continue to be produced around the world, although what eventually ends up on your local screen is another matter. Distributors are concerned more with money than movies. Nevertheless, with the selection sketched out above, it will be hard for the distributors to subtract the blend of entertainment, politics and art from cinema going in the coming year.