- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

A film about the creation of a bunch of television interviews doesn’t exactly scream high drama - particularly when the audience already knows exactly what was said in them.

It’s a testament to the skillful savvy of writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard, then, that “Frost/Nixon” is one of the most exciting and engrossing films of the year.

Mr. Morgan, who has made a career of finding high art in the headlines with films such as “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland,” has smoothly adapted his stage play into a cinematic exploration of media, politics, psychology and the new, crucial importance of the camera to all three.

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) had his pick of interviewers when he resigned the presidency in 1974 after the Watergate scandal. He chose not a seasoned newsman like, say, Mike Wallace, but rather British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen). He had two reasons, Mr. Morgan surmises. One was money. “It’s half a million dollars for a news interview,” his agent, Swifty Lazar (an exceedingly amusing Toby Jones) tells him with some incredulity.

The other is where he really went wrong. Nixon’s people tell him that taking softball questions from a lightweight like Frost will enable the disgraced president to rehabilitate his reputation and make a triumphant return back East. “Frost is not in your intellectual class, sir,” says his confident chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon).

He underestimated not Frost’s brainpower, but his ambition. “Success in America,” he sighs. “It’s unlike success anywhere else.”

Frost might not know politics, but he knows TV. Nixon thinks television - and that constant glow of sweat on his upper lip - cost him the presidency the first time he ran. He never learned his lesson. Even James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), a journalist who wants to “give Richard Nixon the trial he never had,” ends up feeling sorry for this larger-than-life figure, who finally was finished by “the reductive power of the close-up.”

Nixon starts on top, demolishing Frost with his ability to reduce “the presidency to a series of banal anecdotes” as he complains about the rubber-chicken circuit. He ends by admitting he “let [the American people] down.”

The weeks in between are laid out in astonishingly interesting detail. The wealth of insider information doesn’t hurt. Lazar advises us to call someone we’re negotiating with in the evening or on the weekend: “If they take the call, you know you have the upper hand.”

It’s not just the writing, but the performances that make what might have been a wonky snooze-fest a tension-filled study of two fascinating men. Mr. Langella and Mr. Sheen return to the roles they created onstage and, as couldn’t happen in real life, both men triumph.

Mr. Langella wisely decided not to impersonate the iconic president exactly, but he has captured Mr. Nixon perfectly nonetheless. He’s larger than life without being over the top. Mr. Sheen brings a particular poignancy to the playboy who challenged the politician. The supporting players are pitch-perfect, too, including the elegant and sexy Rebecca Hall as Frost’s just-found paramour.

The most illuminating moment of the movie is when a drunk Nixon calls Frost at his hotel room. The two men might be dueling for their professional lives - Frost is seeing show after show canceled and borrows beyond his means to pay Nixon - but in this short phone call, the president explains that the pair have more in common than they realize. Both have been battling snobs their whole lives and want nothing more than a little piece of “the sun, the limelight.” Both finally share it equally in this masterful film.

Stars: 3 1/2

TITLE: “Frost/Nixon”

RATING: R (Some language)

CREDITS: Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan based on his stage play.

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

WEB SITE: frostnixon.net


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