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Mano a Mano

15 Dec

Much like, say, Gladiator or Rocky, at the core of Frost/Nixon there is a battle. Two men enter a ring, both seeking the respect and admiration of the audience, both trying to make up for past wrongs. On one hand, there is David Frost (Michael Sheen), a celebrity talk show host. On the other hand there is Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), the disgraced former president. The film, an adaptation of the award-winning stage play by its writer, Peter Morgan, documents the legendary TV interview that Frost conducted with Nixon in 1977, and how Frost essentially gave Nixon the “trial” he would never have for Watergate. As directed by Ron Howard, the film is completely engaging. The two leads both give fantastic performances (Langella, in the showier role, especially), but they are only two members of an impressive ensemble that also includes Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon.

Howard expands on the play (which I never saw) by adding documentary-style “interviews” with the supporting players. This helps to give the film some context, though it’s not really necessary. The whole thing doesn’t feel stagey, which is great, though I wondered how much more exciting it would have been to see just Sheen and Langella duking it out on stage without the help of a score or any other enhancements. Then again, the big screen helps to showcase what brilliant and subtle performances these are by putting the camera right in the two lead actors’ faces.

I really enjoyed this movie, and thought the early interviews, with Nixon coming off quite humorously as a charmer and totally in control, and Frost totally ill-prepared for how to deal with it, were pretty funny. But I have to say that when we get to the final interview, after Frost has found his cojones, the tone of the verbal sparring shifts so dramatically and almost unbelievably, that it’s a bit off-putting. These interviews are a matter of public record, so it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Frost does finally put the screws on Nixon. And yes, it’s thrilling in the film when he does. But till then, Frost has been so out of his element and so unevenly matched that you wish the film had built a little more to that final confrontation so it feels just a little more rewarding. Had that been so, I’d be giving Frost/Nixon a higher grade. Instead, it gets a B+ from me.

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