CD Review: FROST / NIXON

Composer: Hans Zimmer
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
Grade: B+

When you think about playing The President, sounds of string and brass nobility immediately come to mind, a Copland-esque melody that signals all the things great and valorous about our country, as represented in its Democratically-chosen leader. But what happens when that music’s supposed to accompany a son of a bitch who’s just gotten kicked out of office for subverting the political process? If Nixon got the hard questions with only his raspy voice for accompaniment, just imagine the problem facing Hans Zimmer when he’s supposed to put the sound of anti-patriotism into what’s essentially a bells-and-whistles talking heads movie- (if a very good one at that). The answer is to play personality instead of politics, a “pulse score” of political gamesmanship that has much in common with Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s DARK KNIGHT soundtrack. Except here, the moroseness of its anti-hero is a bit lighter on the senses.

That certainly wasn’t the case with Hans Zimmer’s roaring start with director Ron Howard on BACKDRAFT, a wonderfully bombastic score whose march theme became the stuff of IRON CHEF legend. But when they got back together for THE DA VINCI CODE, Zimmer had the challenge of scoring a film that was mostly about Christ conspiracy pontification. The waves of mesmerizing, religioso music that Zimmer created for those speeches helped make CODE into more than a sermon. What the composer does now for FROST / NIXON isn’t so different, especially with the discourse being about real political subterfuge. The trick is that FROST / NIXON is born from a stage play, where the real words could do just as well without any accompaniment.

But if some people say that the best film music shouldn’t be “noticed,” then FROST / NIXON’s score is a triumph of sneaking about in the background. For a guy who’s often called upon to be the most prominent thing in a movie’s sound mix, FROST / NIXON displays Zimmer’s ingenuity when his voice needs to be kept at a whisper. His score is the equivalent of a technical director whispering something to his cameraman as an interview’s going on, instructions that make the talking head zoom shot he wants more interesting without distracting you from the dialogue.

That interview is a hotshot journalist’s grilling of the crook who got away with it, in this case a President who was pardoned for war crimes, conspiracy and God know what else. It’s David Frost’s pursuit of a de facto conviction of Richard Nixon that’s played for life-or-death stakes here, dramatic hubris that Zimmer’s music thankfully keeps at a mellow pitch most of the time. With the interviews sharply scheduled, the interviews are always a race against time to draw blood from the ultimate fox. And as Nixon weaves and dodges, Zimmer amps up this suspense with a relentless ticking clock of his own, embodied by the kind of rhythmic percussion that filled THE DARK KNIGHT- but given a far more pleasing “tubular bell” sound here.

Dark string sustains abound as this Zimmer varies this constantly moving sound from suspense to light pokiness, as if a bit unsure of how humorous to make the overall absurdity of this media-hyped event. Cues like “Hello, Good Evening, and Welcome” have the kind of exotic eccentricity that filled Zimmer’s underappreciated WEATHER MAN score, while “The Final Interview” has strings and pianos create eerie tension. “Research Montage” engages in rhythm that makes visiting a library positively Bourne-ish, while “Beverly Hilton” is positively upbeat about Frost’s Mission Impossible. Like that seemingly glib interviewer, the upbeat cues of FROST / NIXON have a confident smile to their pace, all while desperately trying not to show how panicked they really are.

If obsessive-compulsiveness proved to be Nixon’s downfall, then Zimmer embodies his paranoia with a piano that ranges from the ghostly to the poignant, delicate keys that are also used for Nixon’s cheery inquisitor when he’s down in the dumps. While whatever Frost hopes to gain from the interview (besides fame) is debatable, neither Zimmer nor the film is out to paint Nixon as a monster, as so many in Frost’s camp are hoping to prove. There’s moving sympathy in the piano, cello and strings of “Status” and “Nixon Defeated.” And when he’s shown footage of “Cambodia,” the orchestra rises to requiem heights, an approach that gooses the scene amidst the score’s overall restraint. But perhaps the highlight of FROST / NIXON’s score is the nearly ten-minute cue “First Ideas,” which features a give-and-take between strings, piano and a surging orchestra that neatly recalls Zimmer’s terrific score for PACIFIC HEIGHTS. It’s a beautifully snarling piece that shows the composer as a master of creating enticing tension for the kind of time span that would probably not be nearly as interesting if filled with words.

But it’s dialogue that’s king here, making FROST / NIXON stand out as the kind of literate “adult” movie that seems to be endangered in any other season than Christmas. Small scale this film and score might be. But under the hot lights and probing queries of FROST / NIXON, Hans Zimmer makes you feel the rush that he’s getting to do something far different than the cool, if booming stuff he’s been called upon of late for CGI critters and summer spectacles. With an intense, involving focus, Zimmer gets the ironic subtext that is this interview’s true answers. Sure Nixon might refuse to gives his secrets up. But Hans Zimmer hears them with involving clarity.

Get put on the spot with Tricky Dick and Hans Zimmer here.

1 Comment

  • December 15, 2008 @ 8:03 am

    I saw this movie this weekend. Fantastic film.

    The music captured the tension of the dialog perfectly. This is must-see / hear.

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