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The "drama" part of a biopic docudrama isn't always a sure bet. Sometimes a writer will capture the right elements to provide the necessary grip on our attentions. Television interviews by a talk-show hosts would normally be a long shot as models for dramatization in a feature film framework. But having gone through the test of it on a stage with considerable success, playright cum screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard have crossed the barrier for politically or historically involved audiences.
Aiding the venture is a knockout simulation of the disgraced president by Frank Langella that will be one of the major items of the movie press. Don't bet your mortgage on it, but expect plenty of buzz.
Nixon, if he was anything, was a game player, and that would be on the political level. If he was anything he was a totally absorbed political animal who found the presidency the perfect satisfaction of his taste for self-aggrandizement and power--a passion that led him to a shaky conviction in his own untouchability.
But, if his intellect made him a master of anything, it was the verbal dodge, and he employs it in the interview--which constitutes the subject of the film--to get the better of his inquisitor. Hence, in his controlling hands, the first three of the four-session program was, for Nixon, more debate-team prevarication and senatorial filibustering designed to avoid any association with guilt implied in Frost's questions than it was an opportunity to come clean.
As the subject of the film is the rare and provocative contest of minds, the plot concerns the competition between each side's support team and the Frost's difficulties in drumming up financial backing for his audacious and opportunistic venture. Failure could make the project a personal disaster for the passionate Brit and Nixon is doing all he can to sink it into a morass of trivia, although this interpretation might be somewhat exaggerated for the sake of drama. The best guide to that is the 1977 DVD.
Adversarially speaking, Frost's team consists of journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and the testy writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), well known for his hatred of the only self-resigned president in American history. For Nixon, his ex-marine sycophantic supporter and adorer Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) is in the adviserial trenches to offer strategy and tactics. And, oh yes, there's also very hot Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) firmly in Frost's corner as well as, presumably, his bed, after a 747 pickup that emerges into a loyal relationship. A fetching grace note of the film, her presence exemplifies Frost's fruitful bachelor life and she makes a stunning sidekick/supporter with whom he can commiserate in the chambers of privacy when despair sets in.
Nixon is depicted as being duly impressed by her but never distracted from his contractual obligations and entirely self-serving agenda. He's not one who is going to fall into anyone's trap but, rather, he will play the gladiator who controls the embattled lions whom he intends to slay. His weapons are the artful digression and fakeout, clock-wasting verbosity and reinterpretation of the record according to his own deceptions. Until the fourth interview and the subject of Watergate, when the acuteness of his mental instrument will lose its edge.
I never thought I'd enjoy seeing Nixon again, but there's a genetic transformation going on here. Langella has pulled off a biological alteration that is so astute and brilliantly adopted that it commands concentrated attention. His matamorphosis into the multi-layered man who would have been a king in president's clothing had he been allowed free rein, is a towering interpretation that speaks volumes about the actor's penetration of his subject. It's an accomplishment that cuts a path to universal praise and the certainty of an Academy nomination.
In any case, his will be the performance to beat at the Oscar race for Best Actor, even with the strong competition from Sean Penn's incisive biographical rendering in ("Milk"). I suspect the veteran (and his body of work) will win out but, either way, you can add Langella's transfigurative artistry to the Nixon historical legacy and I'm prepared to make book on it.
~~ Jules Brenner