“Frost/Nixon”
Universal
At the Showcase

Courtesy of Universal

4 out of 5 Stars

Television journalism has always been a self-parodying medium, with the running joke that a news story isn’t as important as the way it’s delivered. There was actually someone at CNN who decided “Star Trek” type holograms would really spice up the network’s Election Day coverage. Yet as the gripping film “Frost/Nixon” proves, there was a time when news specials could still maintain a modicum of credibility. It’s ironic, perhaps, that this credibility had to come from British goofball David Frost and presidential disgrace Richard Nixon.

Here’s the story: After Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 following the Watergate scandal, the American public was hungry for some sort of closure. Three years later, variety show host Frost secured a series of interviews with the former head of state, by the end of which Nixon had given a sort of tacit confession. He revealed his private philosophy for the first time: The president has the right to perform any illegal act he considers essential for the country’s well-being. Clearly, “essential” is a relative term.

We all know much of this from history class. But director Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code”) takes the viewer beyond what was televised to reveal the process through which the interview was hatched and executed. It shows how Frost (Michael Sheen, “The Queen”), a celebrity playboy with almost no journalistic prestige, was able to convince Nixon (Frank Langella, “Starting Out in the Evening”) into agreeing to the interviews, paying huge sums of money out of his own pocket in the process. Frost gradually realizes the greater significance of his report when he amasses a pair of researchers (Oliver Platt, TV’s “Huff” and the excellent Sam Rockwell, “Choke”) who desperately want to see Nixon confess, if not end up behind bars.

Of course, the most exciting and dramatic parts are the actual interviews. Despite the absurd simplicity of watching two people in chairs recite lines we’ve already heard, the palpable sense of conflict in the air is what drives the entire picture. The interviews are filmed as an extended metaphor for a boxing match; when Tricky Dick purposefully gives meandering responses, everyone treats it like a knockout punch. During breaks in the taping, each side meets with their advisers to plan their attack strategy; the only thing missing is the squeezable water bottle.

The producers were smart to retain their two original Broadway leads. Langella unexpectedly evokes tenderness and sympathy for one of the most despised men in American history, and Sheen always gives the air that he knows more than he’s letting on. While the film is set up to portray Frost and Nixon as spiritual equals, it falters a bit, spending too much time on Nixon and not enough on Frost. What drove Frost to conduct these interviews in the first place, other than the thirst for ratings? We never learn.

Nixon is made out to be a tragic figure in the Shakespearean mold, and he gives numerous long-winded monologues to further drive this characterization home. In one bizarre sequence, he drunkenly dials Frost at night, rambling nonsensically for a good long time. Regardless of its historical accuracy, the scene just doesn’t really work within the context of the film.

Yet “Frost/Nixon” should perhaps be granted license to portray its story in epic grandeur. After all, when dealing with two larger-than-life characters, any other treatment of the story wouldn’t do it justice. The film glows with the same ’70s cool that worked wonders for two of last year’s best movies (“Zodiac” and “The Hoax”), and “Frost/Nixon” should stand as one of this year’s best, as well.

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