It's impossible to watch the story of the most reviled, disgraced and hubristic president of the 20th century, finally confessing his sins in a very public forum, without some modern irony. Yes, Frost/Nixon is a parable — as much about the unpunished high crimes of George W. as it is about those that brought down Tricky Dick, but it also serves as a thoroughly fascinating, if fictionalized, historic snapshot, and is deeply satisfying pop entertainment.
In an era when candidates routinely grace the idiot box in news shows, late-night gabfests, cooking segments and silly rap acts on sketch comedy shows, it's hard to imagine a camera-shy politician. Richard Milhous Nixon was no ordinary politician; the notoriously secretive exec openly hated the press, yet in the aftermath of Watergate he was eager to get back in the spotlight and in need of a splashy way to do it. The opportunity for a political rehab came from the unlikeliest source in David Frost, that avuncular celebrity chat-show host with shows in the UK and Australia but only a brief fling with American TV fame, and a guy desperate for a second chance and a bit of respectability.
The film succeeds on good source material, adapted from Peter Morgan's hit 2006 play, and features the original stage stars. Frank Langella nimbly nails Nixon in all his awkward, jowly, glowering menace, a man convinced of his great superiority, but completely uncomfortable in his own skin. Of all the actors who've attempted him, Langella is best at capturing Nixon's curious dark charm, getting beyond a sweaty caricature and using the full seductive power of Nixon's gravelly timbre to both enchant and bully. That ability to simultaneously attract and repel makes Langella's Nixon a semi-tragic figure, driven into exile by his own hand, an outcast living in comfort at an oceanside California villa, yet a guy so cheap as to squeeze every penny he can from anyone who'll pay. He's a giant with an amazing mind but a petty heart.
Michael Sheen (the quintessential Tony Blair from 2006's The Queen) has the tough task of adding gravity to a seeming flyweight, but he's brilliant, conveying a fierce intelligence in the eyes behind Frost's cheesy showbiz twinkle. Sure enough, Frost's a playboy addicted to glamour, but has the vision and cheek to think he can land the ultimate interview. He puts it all on the line, bankrolling the project himself, and risking his career by facing off against the most formidable of opponents. Both men have massive egos, and planet-sized shoulder-chips, but only Nixon believes he's infallible, not appreciating the hidden cunning of the grilling Frost.
The real winner here is Ron Howard, who continues his evolution from big-budget hack to distinguished craftsman. Howard's still stodgy, but he opens up the story and deftly mixes in a faux documentary technique that keeps the film from feeling stagy, even when the action's just two guys facing off against each other and the unforgiving eye of history.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.