You don't even need a mental image of Ron Howard to know that "Frost/Nixon" was made—and made well—by a very nice man. Richard M. Nixon is unlikely ever to get more sympathetic treatment on screen.
David Frost's people paid Nixon's people $600,000 for the disgraced former president to sit for a series of television interviews taped in March and April 1977, not quite three years after Nixon resigned. If checkbook journalism ever had a leg to stand on, those interviews were that leg. Watching Frost, the louche, sleepy-eyed talk show host, lock rhetorical horns with his subject—evasive, revealing, sentimental, icy, a tragicomic paradox in action—made for a riveting postmortem on a fall from power and the fallout from Watergate, as told by a classically unreliable narrator and his interrogator.
Peter Morgan got a good play out of it. The play is now a film, adapted by Morgan. And like "Doubt," this week's other stage-to-screen adaptation, director Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" pours old-fashioned theatrical juice into a cinematic bottle and lets the actors drink it up.
We'll take it in order of billing. Re-creating his London and New York roles, Michael Sheen—who played Tony Blair in "The Queen," another deft, swift bit of recent history dramatized by Morgan—has a satirist's ear for tweaking his subject, gently. The real Frost always looked like he'd stayed up all night partying with Henry Kissinger and Jill St. John. Sheen, by contrast, is a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed presence, more pup than horn-dog. Still, he's very fine. With each picture Sheen puts his theatrical training to better, more subtle use.
There never was a question of seasoning or scale with Frank Langella, so moving in the recent indie "Starting Out in the Evening." Like Sheen, Langella won accolades in London and on Broadway for "Frost/Nixon." His re-creation of the role for director Howard is destined for an Oscar nomination. Even if Langella were lousy, he'd be nominated. It's that kind of role. (Warren Beatty, among others, considered playing it.) We love to see famous weasels humanized; it's a spectator sport that simultaneously confirms and corrects our worst suspicions about a real-life titan laid low.
Langella's interpretation is hard to resist, even if some of the choices ignore the historical record. When the real Nixon told Frost about his enemies sticking the knife in, for example, he did so with a smile, as if to defuse the violence of his description. In the movie, Langella goes for pure pathos at the same moment. Similarly, when Sheen's Frost asks Langella's Nixon if he let the American people down, the answer's preceded by a pause lasting 18 seconds. Where's Rose Mary Woods when you need her?
Does it work, though? Hell, yes, it works. "Frost/Nixon" is wholly absorbing. As Frost's colleagues (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, among others) prepare their man for the showdown, Nixon and his longtime ally Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), along with Nixon's agent Swifty Lazar (droll work from Toby Jones), suss out their opponent. Morgan's sense of backstage melodrama is very shrewd. "Long answers. Control the space. Don't let him in," Brennan advises Nixon, before the taping. The strategy works at first. Then Frost knuckles down, after a boozy late-night phone call from Nixon, and realizes there's going to be a winner and a loser in all of this.
Though the material never goes for the jugular, a different sort of director would've brought out a sharper edge. References to the "reductive power of the close-up" landed in the play differently than they do on screen, especially on a screen laden with conventionally framed and slotted close-ups of Langella and Sheen doing battle. Similarly, a different director might've favored a composer other than Hans Zimmer, whose hackneyed "danger" music over the opening Watergate montage belongs to a different genre—a dumber one.
But as much as Langella's or Sheen's show, this is Morgan's. He is a terrific middlebrow dramatist, and one of his strengths, along with his wit, is his modesty of scale. "Frost/Nixon" works best when it's simply letting first-rate actors, including Rebecca Hall as Frost's lover, have at it, truth, lies and all.
MPAA rating: R (for some language).
Running time: 2:02.
Opening: Dec. 12.
Starring: Frank Langella (Richard M. Nixon); Michael Sheen (David Frost); Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan); Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing); Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar); Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt); Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick); Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jr.).
Directed by: Ron Howard; written by Peter Morgan, based on his play; photographed by Salvatore Totino; edited by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Michael Corenblith; produced by Brian Grazer, Howard, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. A Universal Pictures release.
'Frost/Nixon' --3 stars