To best savor the intellectual showdown "Frost/Nixon," one has to accept actor Frank Langella's coagulated, faintly vampiric take on the disgraced 37th President of the United States. It's a phlegmy, Herman Munster approach to an impersonation, bending the performance into near cartoonish realms of awkward mimicry. Fortunately, it's the only hiccup in Ron Howard's crisp motion picture; a literate, riveting war of minds that manages to examine a well-worn historical footprint without feeling fatigued in the slightest.
An international talk show host who longs to return to his Hollywood glory days, David Frost (Michael Sheen, "The Queen") stumbles upon the opportunity of a lifetime when he scores a shot to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), semi-fresh from presidential ruin. Gathering a squad of investigators (Matthew Macfayden, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt), Frost begins the arduous task of assembling questions and securing the significant financing needed for the four-part interview to air. In over his head, Frost finds Nixon is a shrewd man, capable of controlling any room he enters with his blend of mischief and stately candor. Fearing utter failure, Frost summons his professional courage, embarking on a tempestuous interview event that would come to present Nixon in a fresh, honest light, altering the way his presidency was perceived.
Based on the award-winning play by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), "Frost/Nixon" plays to Howard's strengths as a reserved filmmaker, incapable of impromptu bits of emotional explosion or dramatic shortcuts. It's a political comedy of sorts that makes the jump from stage to screen with atypical ease; Howard and Morgan pay only mild attention to the summery, west coast 1970's detail, staying intent on the verbosity of the work, not the visual representation. The minimalism suits Howard just fine, guiding the film with an inspired smoothness that renders the picture stunningly digestible, even in the face of a labyrinthine historical backdrop in Watergate and the ensuing public opinion fallout.
Truly a story of two men facing a pivotal moment of professional and personal candor, the film is right at home with Frost and Nixon and they enter the gladiatorial arena of public scrutiny and face off over several days of interview segments. It's no bombshell to indicate the performances are superlative all around (Kevin Bacon excels here as Nixon's right-hand man Jack Brennan), with both Sheen and Langella making for riveting opponents. While there are legitimate issues that arise with Langella's physical appearance and feeble vocal interpretation of Tricky Dick, his body language is mesmerizing, creating a Nixon of media charisma, constantly at war with his abrasive instincts. Sheen also transforms himself, yet his direction is one of cocktail-hour discontent, as Frost confronts his own issues of integrity and financial pressure.
Given ample screentime, Sheen and Langella perform a mighty dramatic tango together, seesawing up and down as both sides unveil their true nature and engage in playful mindgames. The static, verbose interview portion makes up the second half of the film, and while it doesn't have quite the firecracker spirit of informational discovery and personal opinion the introductory moments enjoy, the psychological nuance is spellbinding.
"Frost/Nixon" doesn't always leap dynamically off the screen in quite the manner Howard is perhaps anticipating, but it remains an intelligent, evocative reminder of simple television appetites (Frost is all but defeated when he can't entice the three television networks to air the interviews) and the dynamism, the pure drilling ecstasy, of journalistic hunger.