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Dustin Putman

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Frost/Nixon  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Ron Howard.
Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, Andy Milder, Kate Jennings Grant, Clint Howard, Gabriel Jarret, Jim Meskimen, Patty McCormack.
2008 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 30, 2008.
In adapting the award-winning 2006 play by Peter Morgan (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl"), director Ron Howard (2006's "The Da Vinci Code") has ably converted "Frost/Nixon" to the cinematic format. Avoiding staginess even as the subject matter threatens to turn it into such, Howard opens up the film's world through Salvatore Totino's (2005's "Cinderella Man") glossy cinematography and a firm handle on his mise en scene. Still, Morgan, who wrote the original play and takes over penning duties on the screenplay, keeps his focus very much on the real-life title characters, British talk shot host David Frost and U.S. president Richard Nixon, leaving little time to expand the story's scope beyond its historical context and a few fictionalized flourishes.

Nearly three years after Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), caught up in the midst of accusations tying him to the Watergate scandal, resigned from his post as President of the United States, he grants his first major interview to talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen). His own career in hard times—he has lost his U.S. television syndicates and found himself heading "Frost over Australia"—Frost sees his in-depth four-part chat with Nixon as his last chance to gain the notoriety he seeks. With only twenty-five percent of the interview agreed to revolve around Watergate, Frost knows that this is his one shot to finally break down Nixon and get him to accept guilt for his role in a scandal that left the nation in an uproar. Ultimately, their groundbreaking 1977 face-off would become the most-watched political news program in history.

The intense series of interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon are at the centerpiece of "Frost/Nixon," and they are the reason to watch this otherwise decidedly barebones retelling. Supporting players are underdeveloped and peripheral, from Frost's research assistants James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), to Nixon's dedicated advisor Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), to Frost's girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall), whom he meets on a plane and is in a relationship with before it lands. The actors fill their limited parts with aplomb—Kevin Bacon (2007's "Death Sentence") is especially good—but they, like the common citizens of the era, are given short shrift in the screenplay.

That, then, leaves Michael Sheen (2006's "The Queen") and an incredible Frank Langella (2007's "Starting Out in the Evening") front and center as David Frost and Richard Nixon. Both at war with themselves and in a fight to salvage their careers, Frost and Nixon come to realize that, in this way, they aren't all that different from one another. When Nixon tells Frost off-camera that he is his "fiercest competitor," it reverberates in the viewer just how critical the interview between them has become. A late-night telephone call from a drunken Nixon to Frost may be pure fiction, but it feels dramatically sound all the same, and leads effectively into their final interview where Nixon puts down all his fronts and comes clean about the Watergate cover-up he played a major part in, and at the time believed he was correct in doing so.

Michael Sheen is faultless as David Frost, his desperation rising as his time with the former president draws to a close, but it is Frank Langella who steals the film. Though Langella does not look very much like Richard Nixon, it is a testament to the actor's encompassing body-and-soul brilliance that he never once appears to be anyone other than the man he is portraying. Langella turns Nixon into a political figure who lives his public life with a calm, collected manner that only narrowly hides his insecurity and shame about being a leader who failed to come through for those who trusted in him.

Surprisingly, the viewer walks away from "Frost/Nixon" feeling sorry for Nixon. What he did was wrong, and certainly illegal, but one also gets the sense that he was used merely as an example that not even the President of the United States is exempt from dirty dealings. His image and respect forever tarnished, Nixon more or less slipped away into seclusion in the proceeding years, up until his death in 1994. "Frost/Nixon" suggests that the tragedy of his character is that he recognized the error of his ways too late. By then, the irreversible damage had been done.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman