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Review: 'Frost/Nixon'

Docudrama portrays Nixon as a tragic figure attempting to rehabilitatehis image with a series of interviews with David Frost, a lightweightopportunist.

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Clearly he sees Nixon as a tragic figure of near-Shakespearean proportions – Tricky Dick as Richard III. Langella fills out Morgan's conception. At first it's difficult to accept him as this president – the facial resemblance, the gait, the height, the intonations, are all subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, off. I kept expecting the entire enterprise to lapse into "Saturday Night Live" territory. But about halfway through the movie Langella won me over. He has a most unenviable task – impersonating a legendary public figure – but his actor's wiles successfully complete the deception. His performance may be a species of stunt, a high-wire act, but he never falls off the wire. (For an even more daring Nixon rendition, check out Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman's 1984 "Secret Honor.")

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Sheen plays Frost, expertly, as a quicksilver opportunist who sees his interview with Nixon as his own route to redemption. The movie makes too much of Frost's thin credentials. In fact, he had previously hosted a well-regarded talk show in America that often featured leading writers and politicians. But Morgan exaggerates Frost's deficiencies for the same reason he boosts Nixon's fallen-man gravitas. He wants this to be a battle of opposites.

Except that, ultimately, Morgan has a larger agenda. In a scene he invented for the play and movie, Morgan has a drunken Nixon phoning Frost up on the eve of the final interview – the all-important Watergate segment – and striking a connection based on their mutual humble beginnings. We're both underdogs, Nixon is saying, and no matter how successful we become, the moneyed establishment will never accept us. The call is a canny attempt to throw Frost off guard but it's also the closest Nixon ever comes to a cri de coeur. When he at last drops his wily assuredness and unravels in the Watergate session, it's as if he were handing Frost his own head on a platter. It's a cockeyed act of noblesse oblige – a fallen warrior commemorates himself by very publicly going up in flames.

"Frost/Nixon" never entirely escapes its theatrical origins, and, by framing the story so pugilistically, the filmmakers don't bring out the full richness in this material. They take potshots at Frost's shallowness, but in some ways their methodology is just as glib. Just the same, it's a smart and entertaining show, and it harks back to a time when politics and television were still feeling each other out, looking for an opening, a knockout punch. Grade: B. (Rated R for some language.)