When they’re allowed to debate, Michael Sheen (left) and Frank Langella triumph as David Frost and Richard Nixon.
FROST/NIXON directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by Peter Morgan based on his play, with Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon. A Universal Pictures release. 122 minutes. Opens Friday (December 5). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
In the last third of Frost/Nixon, when director Ron Howard gets out of his own way and lets his actors and their text do the work, the movie - written by Peter Morgan, based on his stage play - finally leaps into gear.
At its heart, Frost/Nixon is a crackling thriller about smart men trying to best each other on the field of ideas, with dignity and honour as the prizes. David Frost and Richard M. Nixon were the gladiators, the American public was the audience, and television was the arena.
Three years after Nixon resigned the presidency without ever acknowledging wrongdoing in the Watergate burglary or the subsequent cover-up, his interviews with Frost forced him to address his betrayal of the executive office - and his country's trust- for the first time.
Michael Sheen, best known over here as Tony Blair in the Morgan-scripted The Queen, disappears effortlessly into the persona of the vain, easily distracted Frost. But it's Frank Langella as Nixon who truly owns the film.
Langella - who's about 6 inches taller and twice as broad as the man he's playing - doesn't try to replicate the 37th president. (Who could?) Instead, he uses his natural elegance to fully inhabit a man who had no grace whatsoever. Weirdly, when I saw Frost/Nixon at the London Film Festival earlier this fall, Langella made me think of Shrek the ogre, grumping indignantly around his swamp, forever wondering why people won't just leave him to his business.
The Frost/Nixon interviews, cut down from 28 hours of taping into four 90-minute TV specials, remain electrifying television, and, at its best, Howard's movie captures the gripping spectacle of two men engaged in ferocious conversation.
Nixon filibusters and talks around Frost's questions; Frost reformulates; Nixon does a different dance or indignantly dismisses the new question out of hand.
Reprising their stage roles, Sheen and Langella do an amazing job of channelling their characters' rhythms. Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews has just been released on DVD; the lighting is harsher and the cuts are different, but it's downright freaky how close the movie comes to recreating the footage.
It's the rest of the action that's more problematic. Before we get to that epic sit-down, Howard has to tell us how important everything is. Frost/Nixon suffers from the same uncomfortable neediness that distinguishes most of the director's work. He can't help pointing out how elaborately he's recreated this location or that era and how much he's spent on every scene.
The first two-thirds are needlessly gussied up with such elaborate digressions. A lengthy scene in which Frost meets Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) on a transatlantic flight seems to have been included to get modern audiences marvelling at the recreation of the cocktail lounges in Pan Am's 747s.
When Frost/Nixon finally gets around to being about Frost and Nixon, it's goddamn riveting. But it takes a good long time getting there.