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Frost/Nixon

Backstage drama revisits historic 1977 interviews

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Nixon (Frank Langella) sizes up Frost (Michael Sheen)
  • Nixon (Frank Langella) sizes up Frost (Michael Sheen)

When President Nixon resigned in 1974, there wasn't much doubt that he had misused his office. What was missing was any acknowledgement to that effect by Nixon -- an admission of guilt, or an apology -- granting the American people what we now call "closure."

Thus, in the mid-1970s, British talk-show host David Frost set about to produce a series of televised one-on-one interviews with Nixon. Frost hoped that his smooth style and clever questions would elicit a confession (or at least a revealing slip-up) from Nixon, and serve as the public trial the country had been denied.

How these 1977 interviews came about and unfolded is the subject of Frost/Nixon, a backstage drama directed by Ron Howard and adapted from Peter Morgan's play. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their Broadway roles, as Frost and Nixon, respectively.

It's a fascinating real-life episode, well worth revisiting. But its historical impact, though not unimportant, is less critical to the film than is Morgan's supposition that the heart of this match-up wasn't "news" or "truth" or even entertainment, but two similar men fighting for supremacy.

Each was born of modest circumstances, and had been a life-long striver for acceptance among the elite, only to have been disappointed that their respective successes granted only temporary entry. Now, by "winning" the interview, each man hopes to redeem his tarnished public self.

Much of this psychodrama is spelled out in a late-night phone call that Nixon makes to Frost in the midst of the interviews. It's a gift of the playwright, not history, but it's still good fun as a sozzled Nixon counsels Frost to play hard, "no holds barred": Because they are a matched pair, the winner deserves the satisfaction of having beaten the best.

Ultimately, Frost/Nixon reveals both men as flawed and self-serving, yet leaves each with some dignity. History has been kinder to Nixon than one might have guessed back in the 1970s, and F/N has an air of more contemporary understanding, if not sympathy. Nixon is characterized as a powerful political animal, now literally and figuratively exiled, padding around in a well-upholstered cage and stroked by sycophants. But it's still a softer portrayal: Langella simply doesn't have Nixon's hard eyes and innate tenseness.

Nobody ever accused Ron Howard of being a flashy director, but his workmanship is solid; the material and actors are top-notch, and Howard serves them well. The sunny Southern California setting and the busy hives of activity around the interviews help open up the play. Even though this is essentially a two-men-in-a-room-talking drama, it never feels confined to that. The many close-ups -- well earned, this being after all a work about talking heads -- create a thrilling intimacy.

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