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No dirty tricks

(Universal Pictures)


No dirty tricks

Frost/Nixon casts a sympathetic eye on the disgraced former president

"It had become almost a sin to think of Nixon as anything less than a villain. And strangely, that aroused my indignation. I thought it was time to move on from seeing Nixon as the boogeyman of American politics."

So said screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan to the Los Angeles Times about his inspiration for his award-winning play, Frost/Nixon, that is likely on the verge of becoming an award-winning film. Directed by Ron Howard, the movie manages to develop sympathy for the 37th president, not in spite of his sins but because of them.

You couldn't call Frost/Nixon (rated R for language) a biopic as it shows no more than a few weeks out of the lives of Richard Nixon and British television host David Frost. But by focusing on the moment when the two men's lives converge, Howard reveals more about the motivations of the powerful and famous than films that painstakingly chart public figures' entire lives typically do.

Both men believe that a series of televised interviews in 1977 will provide an opportunity to rehabilitate their blighted images. Nixon hopes to combat his reputation as a blackmailing, bribing burglar; Frost hopes to reassert his place within the American media by coming across as something more than a lightweight dilettante. Frost proves more successful at this than Nixon, but it is Nixon who resonates more with the audience.

Rumor has it that everyone from Warren Beatty to Jack Nicholson expressed an interest in the film. Wisely, Howard resisted the temptation to cast marquee names and instead went with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, the actors who originated Frost and Nixon, respectively, first on the London stage and later on Broadway.

Without a supremely nuanced performance from Langella, it would be easy for the Nixon Howard and Morgan offer to fall once again into vaudeville villainy. After all, he neither does nor says anything that would justify his actions. Yet Langella's portrayal captures the commonness of Nixon's shortcomings so that, if they do not exactly endear him to viewers, at least they make it more uncomfortable to condemn him.

Instead of the arch-criminal portrayed in so many news accounts, we see a man whose appetite for power and covetous paranoia once he has achieved it leads him to make self-destructive choices-choices that are hardly unique to him. By the time Frost provokes Nixon to admit that he let down the American system of government and the American people, Howard has inspired a feeling not of vindictiveness toward a crook who got away with his offenses but of forgiveness toward a broken elder statesman.

Howard also steers clear of making Frost (and, by extension, the press) into heroic crusaders. For his part, Frost is every bit as motivated by position and prestige as Nixon, if not more so. As Sheen brilliantly portrays, the biggest difference between Frost and Nixon is that the former is naturally more likeable and doesn't possess anything like his opponent's formidable work ethic.

More illustrative, however, is Sam Rockwell as the voice of the rabid press. James Reston (Rockwell), a member of Frost's research team, certainly believes in the righteousness of his zeal to use the interviews to skewer an already disgraced man, but his hysteria to exact revenge paints a decidedly unattractive picture. Reston wants to punish and humiliate, not illuminate. The ironic note of course is that a man who was at that time considered, at best, a fringe member of the media so closely resembles many of today's mainstream press.