Movie News & Reviews

Howard, Langella nail Tricky Dick in movie

On the bitterly cold afternoon I went to see Frost/Nixon, themarquee had spelled the second "N" of Nixon's name backwards.

Those of us too young to have ever seen Nixon on live TV know him fromFuturama as a sociopathic tyrant with a werewolf's accent. Hisflopsweat during the Kennedy debate is legendary. And as the movieitself says, Nixon's Watergate crimes are so notorious that to thisday, any American political scandal is immediately suffixed with"-gate."

But who's really got the last laugh here? The guy whose name issynonymous with criminal failure, or all the rest of us whose namesmean nothing at all? I've got to give it to Tricky Dick "Only SittingPresident to Ever Resign" Nixon, that's who. That's why my plan, if mysecret dreams of being a dashing playboy novelist are evershattered -- oops, cat's out of the bag -- my backup plan is to go on atri-state spree of candy heists. It's everything you could ever want:fresh air, getting to see some country, and the knowledge that,whatever else happens, I'll always be known as that sick monster whomailed his ex-girlfriend a box filled with the severed heads of athousand chocolate gummy bears.

It's the mid-'70s, and though Nixon (played by Frank Langella) hasresigned, he never stood trial, Ford pardoned him, and the Americanpeople have been left angry and unsatisfied.

Seeing this anger on TV, playboy talk show host Michael Sheen (asDavid Frost) has visions of turning it into ratings by landing a Nixoninterview. Others have tried, but Sheen has two things the bignetworks can't or won't offer: a boatload of cash, and a reputationfor frothy irrelevance.

Nixon and his advisors see it as an opportunity for him to acquithimself in the all-important court of public opinion. Sheen's team ofinvestigators see it as a chance to give Nixon the trial he never had.But both sides have underestimated the other: Sheen's not as daft ashe seems, and Nixon is far more charming and slick than his reputationsuggests.

Here's how surreal this job can be: mere days ago I was watching Sheenas a bulked-up idiot shrieking about werewolf suffrage, and here he isholding his own against Langella's brilliant take on one of thenation's most behated presidents.

It's Langella's performance that elevates a competent, enjoyablestruggle of wills into something moving. How do you evoke sympathy fora man who's almost universally reviled? Witchcraft! Toad-powdering,goat's-blood-spattering witchcraft, and this is the final proofdirector Ron Howard is up to his talented neck in it.

It's either that or the way he and the Peter Morgan-written scripttreat Nixon as a human being rather than a sweaty, hotel-ransackingbogeyman. In showing both his charm and his naked greed, his callousmanipulation and his pathetic need for love and respect, Nixon isexplained without being exonerated.

That's an honest-to-goodness artistic achievement. Not content to restthere, Frost/Nixon penetrates more sharply into what drivespeople to great deeds than most biopics can muster. The answer? Notnobility or the urge to improve the human condition, but insecurityand vengeance. Think about that next time a firefighter saves yourlife. Wait, do more than think about it, tell him about it. Especiallyif he's holding one of those big axes.

Most of its depth doesn't arrive until the second half, but up to thenthings remain brisk, funny, and well-acted. Though the concept of twodudes yakking at each other may not sound compelling,Frost/Nixon nails the cultural significance of its story everystep of the way.

Grade: A-