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"Frost/Nixon" poster

A film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

"Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal" is not a recent quote spoken by or about a U.S. president. Although it may seem to have a fresh and familiar ring to it, the line was uttered by a Commander-in-Chief nearly 32 years ago in Beverly Hills, CA .

Falling from the lips of Richard Nixon, the declarative sentence signaled that a game of video gotcha had concluded. In 13 lucky words, the 37th President of the United States of America unequivocally and succinctly fessed-up to the Watergate scandal. And David Frost, the ubiquitous British television presenter, talk show host and producer had won.

Giving away the gist of this docudrama film by Ron Howard takes nothing from it. Most all know how it turned out and how television became inextricably connected to politics in America. And how, what some call, our loss of innocence or, better yet, acquisition of cynicism was achieved as a nation.

The Frost/Nixon interviews gave Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) a chance to alter his unfortunate legacy flowing from Watergate. David Frost (Michael Sheen), on the other hand, was using his keen knowledge of television to freshen and bolster his image and talk shows by conversing with the man at the center of the biggest American political scandal of the 20th Century. Mr. Nixon also got $600,000 for his time and trouble.

The American networks weren't having any of it. So Frost pulled it off on his own with the help of a freelance video crew and journalists that included James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Zelnick (Oliver Platt).

"Frost/Nixon" is a work of fact and fiction. Of course the interview segments shown in the film are not far from verbatim, but imagination plays at the edges to give movement to the script and sidebar tension in between the excellent moments that Frost and Nixon do their verbal jousting. Peter Morgan, who wrote the play of the same name, has rendered a screenplay that reveals the masterful way Richard Nixon's mind worked during these on-camera bouts, indicating that he was surely one of our best politicians despite his lack of charm and charisma.

Michael Sheen, for me, seems a bit too saccharine, even cherublike, in his role as Frost. I watched Frost a lot in his heyday of "That Was The Week That Was" and other television productions. The Frost in the Howard film is articulate and astute, but not as much as I remember the real David Frost of three and four decades ago. Sheen seems to be skirting the margins of caricature in his portrayal.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen

Frank Langella and Patty McCormack
Langella with Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon

Conversely, Frank Langella has absorbed the ghost of President Nixon in my mind. Even though Langella appears to be slightly taller than Nixon, everything else is right-on and almost creepy; the body language, the walk, the voice, the cadence of speech, the facial expressions. Makeup also brings Langella up to snuff, nearly giving us the genuine Whittier article.

The Nixon performance is the stuff of this picture. All of the other players, although competent and necessary, are secondary. Frank Langella’s interpretation of Richard Nixon is one of two important things to take home.

I waved a flag for Langella last year at this time for his low-key outing as a has-been writer and literature professor in "Starting Out in the Evening," which received few salutes. It will be difficult for Hollywood to let what Langella does in this film go unnoticed. He is spookily great.

The other take-home item from "Frost/Nixon" is that the picture is a timely reminder or propitious lesson of American history that seems to have the need of being learned over and over again.

"Frost/Nixon" preview
"Frost/Nixon" official site

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Gary Chew can be reached at: garychew@comcast.net

Copyright © 2008, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

12/2/2008: National Archives released new excerpts of Nixon White House tapes. MSNBC: Nixon tapes: Ruthless, cynical, profane

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