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Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Kevin Bacon, Matthew MacFayden
Director: Ron Howard
In his production notes, screenwriter Peter Morgan describes Frost/Nixon - which he first penned as a stage play, and then adapted for the screen for director Ron Howard - as 'Rocky with words and ideas rather than fists ... an intellectual 15-round gladiatorial contest'.
It's a description that sums up the film well: Frost/Nixon is best savoured as a duel between two troubled souls - on the one side a British television presenter facing a make-or-break moment in his career, on the other a shamed politician trying to reshape his public image and his place in history.
And it works, mostly because of the fearless performances by the two leads in a film about the interviews former US president Richard Nixon did with David Frost in 1977 during which he confessed to letting his country down in the Watergate scandal.
Michael Sheen plays the broadcaster as more than just a one-note bumbling Brit: in the run-up to the interviews his Frost both revels and agonises over his life as a flashy celebrity, at the same time he wheels, deals, presses flesh and endures snarky comments and antagonism as he prepares for the duel with Nixon and his equally tricky minders.
For all his efforts, however, Sheen is upstaged by a powerful performance from Frank Langella (above right with Sheen) as the disgraced and disgruntled Nixon. Detractors of Nixon will probably be aghast at the veteran actor's turn, as it adds so much humanity to him that sympathy for the man is almost inevitable.
The two towering performances have certainly fed into the rest of the film, their energy driving proceedings along as Howard plays out the preparations for the interviews akin to a political thriller, with Frost's back-up team - comprising his producer (and future BBC chief) John Birt (Matthew MacFayden), journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and the vehemently Nixon-hating writer James Reston Jnr (Sam Rockwell) - frantically building the presenter's questioning strategy, while Nixon's people, led by his fiercely loyal aide-de-camp Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), attempt to blunt their adversaries' efforts and transform the to-be-televised proceedings into a platform for their boss' rehabilitation.
Frost/Nixon's weakest link lies in Howard's insertion of faux documentary-like talking-head 'interviews' with some of the protagonists - played by the same actors - reminiscing on their experiences of the encounter. This device jolts the narrative, its postmodern reflexivity actually draining the energy of the performances away; it's an irony that such aesthetic manipulation undermines a film about media manipulation itself.
Frost/Nixon opens today