In 1977, Richard Nixon agreed to his first televised interview since his resignation. It was granted not to an American journalist, but to an English talk-show host, David Frost. The erudite ex-president, desperate to improve his tarnished record for posterity, perceived that the inexperienced Frost would be a pushover; he thought he could chew through Frost’s questions, and that the inquisitor wouldn’t fight back. But the proud, embittered old politician met his match. The well-researched Frost, after days of being stepped on, finally cornered Nixon about his lies during their last taping session, and the fallen man uttered the only public apology for the Watergate scandal that he ever would. Squeezing that confession out of Nixon—for our sake, as well as for his—is what gives Frost/Nixon, the new Ron Howard docudrama about the interview, its drama and tension. The intellectual brinkmanship between Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella) gives verve and excitement to an otherwise peculiarly nonpolitical political thriller.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan adapted his own play, and though I haven’t seen it on stage, Frost/Nixon’s clash-of-titans form seems ideally suited for the theater. Richard Nixon is for modern drama what mythical figures were for Greek tragedy. His shortcomings and faults led to his downfall, and he fell hard and before the harsh eye of public scrutiny. When he crashed, what was lost was much more than his career or pride—only his starchiest opponents (such as the loyal attaché that Kevin Bacon plays in the picture) didn’t feel somehow wronged. It is easy to imagine (if not empathize with) the intense emotional burden that Nixon likely shouldered, but the Frost interview is perhaps the only artifact that might offer some showing of contrition on his part, and the closest either he (publicly) or the country ever got to catharsis in the mixed-up wake of Vietnam and Watergate. I think it’s safe to say that most of us share Langella, Morgan, Howard—and Oliver Stone’s—humanist urge to prove that Nixon wasn’t completely a monster, and that he suffered for what he did. (It’s a humanist stance that’s paradoxically laced with an unavoidable touch of malice; we still want to see him suffer, after all.) But, no matter what the moral imperative (and it sure gets rather iffy here), there’s a tendency for actors, dramatists and filmmakers to want to take a stab at the 37th president, and if it’s done with enough bravado, there’s a tendency for critics to laud that performance.

Well, fine, Langella does grace the movie with a fine performance. However, I think the part is still tuned better for the stage, where grandiose gestures are often required to provide shading. His best moment, I think, is when he explodes at Bacon’s character after a chit-chatty talk Nixon gives to a doctors’ convention; the dialogue doesn’t completely serve him, but Nixon’s pride shines through—justified pride for his legitimate achievements. Langella offers us this wounded pride more handily than he does Nixon’s guilt. Howard trains his camera on Langella for the big “it’s my fault” pay-off during the interview—a scene in which this Nixon is more effusive than the one in the actual footage (clips of which are available at the interview’s official Web site)—but, I think, moments like the one where Nixon briefly confides in his attaché following Frost’s “gotcha!” moment are much more telling. Conversely, Langella’s big scene is when he drunk-dials Frost and openly declares war—both of their reputations have a lot on the line because of the interview, and only one of them can “win” it. (Fortunately, with caller-ID these days, you can know in advance not to pick up if Richard Nixon calls you at 2 A.M.) Though great pains are taken here to make him seem like a fair old ox, this scene is like an encapsulation of Philip Baker Hall’s tipsy tirade in Robert Altman’s one-man-show about Nixon, Secret Honor—a Nixon corrupted by his own delusions.

Sheen (no relation to the Estevez family) gives a smooth, almost effeminate, performance; but between his goggle eyes and vulpine grin, it’s almost too easy to see Frost as the patsy playboy that everybody else sees him as. (The real Frost is long in the face, and got his start in the English political-satire boom of the ’60s.) Sheen’s good when Frost gets desperate, but he can be so damn mousy that you expect his preened British accent to come out in squeaks. Maybe this is indicative of the larger problem with Frost/Nixon: It almost reduces Nixon to that hunk of cheese on a mousetrap, and Frost to an uppity rodent. Morgan and Howard take pains to make Frost “nonpolitical” to the end; the requisite liberal angst is relegated to his researchers, played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell (who looks like he’s come down with a stronger case of the flu than usual). The tension is high, and the characters are given texture, but everything is simplified and pre-chewed for us for the sake of what seems, in retrospect, an artificial goal.

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