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Frost/Nixon ****
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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Frost's feisty exchanges with America's most infamous ex make for compelling cinema.

FROST/NIXON
(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt. Rated R.

When British talk-show host David Frost first approached Richard Nixon about participating in a series of televised interviews that would touch on everything from the Vietnam War to Watergate, the disgraced former president wasn’t the only one looking to rehabilitate his image.

In 1977, three years after resigning the presidency, Nixon was not so much a forgotten man as a ghost, recoiling from the spotlight and shadowed always by the humiliating scandal that had felled his career. Frost, on the other hand, had simply been dismissed as irrelevant. Living in Australia after a failed bid to sell himself in America, he was willing to wager $600,000 of his own money that a Nixon interview – or, as he regarded it, the trial that never was – would revive his fading star and salvage his reputation for high-minded journalism.

Some, including members of Frost’s own camp, wondered if their man was up to the challenge. Even more skeptical were Nixon and press agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), who initially dismissed Frost (Michael Sheen, of The Queen) as an attention-hungry pushover who could be used for an easy payday. Nixon, always up for a good fight, relished the idea of batting around a soft opponent, and in the early rounds he did just that.

If I’m making Frost/Nixon sound like a boxing match, that’s no accident. Directed by Ron Howard, whose Cinderella Man chronicled the improbable resurrection of Depression-era heavyweight Jim Braddock, the showdown between Frost and America’s most infamous ex has all the trappings of a title bout, from the tantalizing buildup to the electrifying main event.

Frank Langella, whose mimicry of Nixon’s mannerisms is actually less impressive than his nuanced portrayal of the man’s tortured psyche, deflects his interrogator’s questions with ease in the early going, and though Langella, with his booming baritone and sternly authoritative presence, dominates the film with a sublime performance, he gracefully yields the floor to Sheen when Frost formulates an effective counterstrike to his subject’s tactical interruptions and anecdotal evasions.

If Frost was no match for Nixon intellectually, he had several weapons at his disposal – youthful charisma, which John F. Kennedy had used to dispatch the then-vice president in the 1960 presidential debates, and a staff anchored by rabid-dog researcher James Reston Jr. (the always inspired Sam Rockwell), who armed his colleague with evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate cover-up even earlier than previously believed.

There is a hint of mutual understanding (bordering precariously, one senses, on admiration) between Frost and Nixon, as much as there is electric give-and-take between Langella and Sheen. Reprising the roles they played first in London and later on Broadway – playwright Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, adapted his mostly fact-based story for the screen – Langella and Sheen have been verbally sparring for years now, and none of the tension or grudging warmth of their exchanges has been lost over time.

Howard, a highly competent filmmaker if not a great one – he has rarely shown a willingness or ability to embrace the darkness in his movies, preferring to accentuate the sunny side – rarely gets in the way of his actors or Morgan’s sharply written script, and Frost/Nixon is probably the better for it.

For those with a lingering distaste for our late president, whose crippling paranoia and glowering visage were captured so brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins in the near-Shakespearean tragedy of Oliver Stone’s 1995 Nixon – Langella’s performance is more of an impression, though just as revealing – there’s a natural temptation to root for Frost to goad his man into a groveling plea for forgiveness. Yet though Nixon offers a reluctant mea culpa, perhaps giving his host more of a made-for-TV watershed moment than he honestly expected, it feels like something less than a seminal moment in American history.

As for Frost and Nixon themselves? The interview, which could have been a double-edged sword for two men in serious need of a major-league makeover, might ultimately be viewed as a small but significant triumph for both.

For Frost, the rewards were massive ratings and a renewed reputation for serious journalism. For Nixon, trapped in self-imposed exile at his Southern California home, it proved the first step in a comeback that would re-establish him as a formidable if flawed public figure.

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