"Frost/Nixon," starring Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost, is both up to the minute and past its expiration date. Directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, who expanded his celebrated stage play, it's about the disgraced Nixon, who resigned from the presidency in 1974 and three years later, for a $600,000 paycheck, sat for a series of interviews with the British talk-show host Frost.
Frost was widely regarded at the time as a lightweight, and Nixon, licking his wounds in his seaside villa in San Clemente, saw the sessions as a chance to rehabilitate his image. The Frost team, which included attack-dog researcher James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), viewed the interviews as an opportunity to give the pardoned president "the trial he never had."
With a backdrop this dramatic, Howard and Morgan proceed to make it even more so. Not content merely to lay out the facts, they frame the Frost-Nixon confrontations as full-on combat. Each fighter has his trainers, his handlers, his cut men. The only thing missing are referees in the ring, and, in a way, we get those, too. Borrowing a tactic from "Reds," Howard intermittently intercuts blow-by-blow talking-head commentary from the various aides in both camps. The film is saying, politics isn't just politics, it's blood sport. Just in case we didn't already know this.
The movie's immediacy is obvious in this election year. What seems outdated about it is the resuscitation of Nixon in the era of George W. Bush. No doubt many in the audience will look at Nixon's transgressions and, comparing them with Bush's, conclude that he wasn't so horrible after all. In any case, Morgan doesn't simplify Nixon, and this is as it should be. It is a prerequisite of any principled biographer to do more than simply demonize his subject.
Oliver Stone was castigated in some quarters for not vilifying Dubya in his "W," but that was the least of that movie's problems. Morgan, a far more expansive and witty talent than Stone, has made something of a specialty of inhabiting the psyche of the ruling classes. From "The Deal" to "The Queen" to "The Last King of Scotland," he has cast a withering yet empathetic eye on royalty.
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.")
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.)