[Screen It]

(2008) (Michael Sheen, Frank Langella) (R)

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Drama: A TV host lands the opportunity of a lifetime when he manages to get former President Richard Nixon to agree to a number of TV interviews with him.
It's 1976 and David Frost (MICHAEL SHEEN) is the popular host of TV programs in both Australia and London who comes up with the idea of landing former President Richard Nixon (FRANK LANGELLA) for a series of interviews, what with some 400 million people having watched his resignation two years earlier. No one thinks he'll be able to pull it off, but legendary talent agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar (TOBY JONES) convinces Nixon with two reasons: He'll be paid a lot of money for his appearance, and he'll have the chance to repair his reputation. His current chief of staff, Jack Brennan (KEVIN BACON), agrees, viewing Frost as intellectually inferior to his boss.

With the agreement made, Frost assembles his investigative team, including his producer John Birt (MATTHEW MACFADYEN), TV newsman Bob Zelnick (OLIVER PLATT) and author/professor James Reston, Jr. (SAM ROCKWELL) who wants to use the interviews as the trial that Nixon (whom he despises) never had. For moral support, Frost has Caroline Cushing (REBECCA HALL), a woman he met on a flight and who he takes to meet Nixon for the first time, with both surprised by the man's charm and geniality.

After months of setting up and trying to sell the programming to pay Nixon's signing fee, Frost then begins the first of four interviews in 1977. Initially overwhelmed by the shrewd and manipulative politician, Frost must then regroup in order to accomplish his goal of getting the former president to open up about Vietnam and Watergate, and hopefully get a confession of guilt out of him.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
It seems that nary a month goes by without news of some politician sticking a foot in his or her mouth when not otherwise shooting themselves in said appendage. Many are just gaffes based on any number of factors, while others signal there might be something more troubling brewing and ready to bubble up from under the surface.

Then there are those who are out and out corrupt, having knowingly and willingly broken the law in any number of ways, most often associated with fantasies of grandeur where they believe that just because someone voted for them they're suddenly above the rules the rest of us must follow.

Granted, there have always been such characters who will likely continue to exist into the foreseeable future. It's just that so many more are caught nowadays thanks to a hungry media corp that needs to fill its 24-hour tanks as well as any number of media devices simply lying in wait, so to speak, to capture the inevitable slip-up. Most, of course, fade into obscurity, but the bigger the fish, the longer they stay in the frying pan consciousness of the electorate and history in general.

As everyone knows, it was a media device, albeit of a now fairly primitive technology, that caught and brought down the biggest fish of them all, our 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon. From the wiretapping of the Democratic Party's campaign headquarters in the Watergate office complex to his own Oval Office recordings, Nixon knowingly broke the law, and facing a later imminent impeachment, resigned in 1974.

Three years later, a TV personality by the name of David Frost would get Nixon again on tape, this time surprisingly opening up about the Watergate scandal and more, in a series of interviews that provided an eye-opening look at Nixon and the Presidency. That fascinating exchange became the basis for the Broadway play "Frost/Nixon" in 2007 starring Frank Langella as the former President and Michael Sheen as the interviewer, and has now lead to the feature film of the same name where the original theatrical stars reprise their roles.

Not surprisingly, the two feel quite comfortable in their former stage skins, and it's those characters, their goals, and their interaction during the interviews that fuels this engaging and surprisingly entertaining drama. I say surprising because the thought of watching a not yet 40-year-old reporter asking questions of a notoriously guarded 64-year-old politician probably doesn't sound particularly interesting to non political history buffs and/or those who don't care about Nixon or couldn't pick him out of a line-up of former presidents from before the Reagan era.

What makes it fascinating, however, is in the battle of wills that starts off in a David and Goliath fashion, where it seems the famously intelligent (if crooked) ex-President will easily make mincemeat of his less experienced interrogator. Yet, and after a few missteps -- that trouble his associates played by Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt, Frost turns out to be a formidable adversary. And as they like to say in the movies, "Let the games begin."

Working from a script by Peter Morgan who adapts his own stage play that mixes fact and some fiction (including various "after the fact" interviews with the supporting players, such as Rockwell and Platt's characters, as well as Kevin Bacon as Nixon's post-retirement chief of staff), director Ron Howard keeps things moving along at a welcomed, brisk pace. From the early scenes featuring Frost as a local celebrity and thus struggling to arrange and then finance the interviews to the "big get" toward the end of them, the film is near consistently captivating.

Yet, and no real surprise here, the best moments are those where the two combatants test out the other's abilities and then engage in a battle of wills and manipulation. In essence, it's like a sports movie, most akin to a boxing one, where the opponents jab, block and patiently try to deliver (as well as avoid) the knockout blow.

While Sheen is quite good as Frost (even if his recent portrayal of Tony Blair in "The Queen" might have some viewers wondering why England's Prime Minister interviewed the prez), it's Langella who's the true heavyweight champion. Although his physical appearance clearly isn't a dead ringer for "Tricky Dick," he's got the mannerisms, vocal intonations, and, most importantly, the mindset and ego down pat. All of which don't take long to make you believe you're watching the real thing and should certainly earn the actor various award nominations and possible victories upon the arrival of that statue season.

Although some may complain that this is only a superficial look at the news event as well as Nixon in general, and that one should watch the actual interviews for more context (both valid points), many will likely view this as a well-made and certainly entertaining appetizer/introduction to a more in-depth examination of such matters. "Frost/Nixon" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2008 / Posted December 19, 2008

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