October 19, 2008 / 11:27 PM / 10 years ago

"Frost/Nixon" proves closer to "Rocky" than to "W."

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan’s exploration of David Frost’s 1977 TV interviews with disgraced former President Richard Nixon, is less a political movie than a boxing film without the gloves.

The film, based on Morgan’s play, shows the run-up to the four rounds between the two men as that of intense negotiations and strenuous prep with their seconds, with early rounds going to the ex-president while Frost delivers a KO in the final round by getting Nixon to tacitly admit to “mistakes” in orchestrating a cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

Nevertheless, it will be political junkies, Nixon antagonists, history buffs and perhaps students of television who will be drawn to “Frost/Nixon.” Universal Pictures’ plan to release the Ron Howard-directed film in December, a month after the current election, probably is not long enough to ensure that it won’t suffer from presidential fatigue on the part of the American public. The film recently premiered at the London International Film Festival.

Staging this showdown as a “no holds barred” match lets Morgan create a “Rocky”-like atmosphere. In this corner is a wily master politician who knows every trick of spin and manipulation to overwhelm an opponent. In that corner is a glib British talk show host, selected by members of the Nixon camp who sense that a softball interview with this lightweight nonjournalist might sufficiently rehabilitate Nixon so he can return to public life.

However, this approach must overemphasize Frost’s playboy aspect while ignoring the fact he was a Cambridge graduate, a host and producer of the hugely popular political satire TV show called “That Was the Week That Was” and had interviewed major political leaders on British TV. OK, he’s no Mike Wallace, but Frost is a far cry from the carnival performer he at times acts like in “Frost/Nixon.”

Morgan — whose examinations of major figures in public life have included depictions of Queen Elizabeth, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Idi Amin — clearly has a thing for power and those who wield it. Here the writer again demonstrates his knack for making real people come to life. If you think that’s easy, look at how Oliver Stone struggles in “W.,” sometimes unsuccessfully, to make well-known people anything more than waxworks. For his part, Howard continues to be virtually the only American director to achieve such a high degree of professional skill without displaying a trace of a cinematic personality.

Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who originated the roles onstage, effectively play Frost and Nixon without trying terribly hard to imitate either. Sheen doesn’t bother to exaggerate Frost’s on-camera tics and vocal inflections. Rather, he plays breezy desperation, a performer who is smooth on the surface yet roiling inside, desperate to climb back into showbiz heaven through this interview. Langella permits prosthetic makeup to get the Nixon jowls and gives his voice a Nixonian tenor, but otherwise his is a study in power lost and utter loneliness.

Kevin Bacon displays steely military wariness as Col. Jack Brennan, Nixon’s chief strategist. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell, as Frost’s researchers, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr., constantly betray nerves over their boss’s frothy personality. Rebecca Hall exhibits loyalty and empathy as Frost’s girlfriend of the moment, Caroline Cushing.

In a probably fictional phone call that a somewhat drunken Nixon makes to Frost before the final interview, Morgan tries to make the case that the two were somewhat alike. Modestly born and taken lightly as youths, they scraped and clawed their way to the top of their professions, seemingly in defiance of all the naysayers. But that’s a little too slick and easy, and almost beside the point.

Nixon was a man brought down by his own hubris and, possibly, self-loathing. He fought all his life for power but never had a fully developed ideology to put it to good use. Frost is a man disliked by many who have worked with him. If Morgan had shown us more of that side to Frost, his final take-down of Nixon might not seem so surprising.

Frost is a creature of the camera. He has spent his life in front of it. So interviewing a president is essentially the same thing as telling a good joke or hosting a marathon TV program the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It’s all showbiz.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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