January 1, 2009

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Frost/Nixon (R)
A lightweight talk show host and a disgraced president square off over a series of interviews in 1977 in Frost/Nixon, a lively movie based on the play based on the real-life interviews.

David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a talk show host of some note in Australia and the U.K. but whose show on American television has flopped. He’s not just a little desperate to climb back to the career pinnacle that is the incomparable feeling of being successful in America.

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) is a man in exile. After resigning the presidency and securing a pardon from President Ford, he remains in the political wilderness, stuck in his sun-drenched California home, far from all the corridors-of-power stuff he loves so much.

Frost has a half-million dollars (sort of), Nixon has a potentially good story. David Frost decides that these two men can use each other — Frost to get back on American TV radar and Nixon to repair his image with the American people.

Frost/Nixon the movie is about two things. At its best, it’s about the showdown between these two men. Nixon wants to come off like a statesman who made a few mistakes; Frost needs — if not the “conviction” his American researchers hunger for — a news-worthy angle, an apology or an admission of guilt. Nixon and Frost have different skills — Frost is good in front of the camera, Nixon knows how to manipulate. Particularly in their final and most combative interview, we can watch their strengths and their weaknesses as they take each other on in what Nixon very much sees as a one-on-one fistfight.

The other part of the movie is the less successful but still entertaining behind-the-scenes story of how the interview came together. Because Frost was paying Nixon, he couldn’t get any networks to pay for the show and had to find his own advertisers. And while he appeared to be playing B-list celebrity in Beverly Hills — where he and his team prepared for the tapings — his staff of agitated researchers worried that a puffy interview would destroy their credibility. James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) both had reputations to protect and were trying to steer the interview away from being just a series of Nixon’s reminiscences on his time in the White House (which is how it appears to go in the beginning) to being a more adversarial reckoning for what Nixon put the country through. These scenes, while they don’t work quite as well as the Frost vs. Nixon stuff, do offer solid historical context and help explain why these interviews mattered.

Sheen has appeared in other movies written by Peter Morgan (the screenwriter here), most notably The Queen and The Deal — in both of which he played Tony Blair. He’s great at these roles where he gets to show the cracks in someone’s public persona and show the internal stuff that motivates his characters as much as the more obvious external pressures. He’s a perfect match for Frank Langella, who starts off seeming Nixony but then sinks deeper and deeper into the character, so that when you see a photo of the actual Nixon later you’re almost surprised that it isn’t Langella. This isn’t some impersonation; it’s a real finding of the man’s inner self, his deepest Milhous core, and letting his personality quirks direct the performance of Nixonian mannerisms. B

Rated R for some language. Directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan (from his play), Frost/Nixon is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures.