4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The title sums it up: “Frost/Nixon” is a face-off. Adapted by playwright-turned-screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) from his own Tony Award-winning Broadway smash, it's a whip-smart dramatization of the interview sessions between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon that rocked the television airwaves in 1977. An inside look behind the scenes of the the events leading up to the battle-of-wits broadcast, the film is deftly directed by Ron Howard and enthralling from start to finish. Its pace is breathless because it has a clear, pressing objective to which it builds from minute one: Nixon's eventual on-air confession of guilt regarding the Watergate scandal.
As the movie begins, those viewers who remember Tricky Dick's 1974 impeachment-impending resignation are invited to relive it while the rest of us get a history lesson in the form of high-brow entertainment. In character, key members of the supporting cast – which include Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Matthew MacFadyen – recall the pivotal moment and its aftermath in documentary-style confessionals that are intercut with actual news footage of the era. Save Bacon, who plays Nixon's right-hand man, Jack Brenner, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the ex-president, pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, would never be given the trial he deserves for perhaps the most infamous political crime in US history. Enter Frost (Michael Sheen), a peppy Regis Philbin-type headlining a talk show in Australia at the time of Nixon's departure. Yearning to take on a project with far more prestige than a sit-down with the BeeGees, Frost informs his skeptical producer, John Birt (MacFadyen), that he's interested in interviewing the disgraced head of state. Enter Nixon (Frank Langella), a smug and greedy shell of a man who accepts the invitation and agrees to break three years of silence with the promise of a hefty check and with every intention of outmaneuvering his neophyte host.
No one believes that Frost can produce a legitimate segment; not the networks (they all turn him down), not Brenner (he's highly protective of his boss), and, initially, not American collaborators Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. (Platt and Rockwell – they both know what's at stake far more than the out-of-his-league Frost). In fact, the only other person who's gung-ho about the show is Nixon, whose self-importance is well intact despite his public humiliation. A fight for the spotlight and the upper hand kicks off between the two determined men as the interviews – paid for, essentially, out of Frost's pocket – are taped over a period of five days. And they are hypnotic to watch.
Langella and Sheen, both reprising their roles from the play, deliver their lines like shotgun blasts. I have to admit, going into this film, I had my doubts about Langella, his Tony win notwithstanding. Too many actors have already impersonated Nixon – Dan Hedaya, Beau Bridges, Anthony Hopkins – and too many of them unconvincingly. Langella sent my trepidations right out the window. He turns Nixon into something we haven't seen before: a complex cinematic character. He transcends the obligatory prosthetic nose and peace signs in the air and makes the man his own, humanizing him while still playing him as despicable. Destined to be nominated for an Oscar, it's a towering and spellbinding performance. In the other corner is Sheen, a can't-miss actor who re-teams with Morgan after delicately portraying Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Outshined by Langella's powerhouse but more than capable of holding his ground, Sheen gives another seemingly effortless turn. Together, the two stars spin Morgan's material into pure dramatic gold.
“Frost/Nixon” is Ron Howard's best-directed film since 1995's “Apollo 13.” Naysayers may argue the validity of 2001's multiple Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind” but, seven years later, who but cinemaniacs like me even remember it? Howard's newest title ranks among the great movies about broadcast journalism, where it will remain for years to come. It also affords the filmmaker the get-out-of-jail-free-card he'll probably need when “The Da Vinci Code” prequel, “Angels & Demons,” drops with a thud in 2009. Though it criminally sidelines some great actors to highlight its titular match-up, “Frost/Nixon” is a seat-pinning locomotive of a movie. It barrels toward its destination, reaches it, and comes to a smooth, graceful stop. I was thrilled to be on board.