By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
On paper, the verbal sparring between talk show host David Frost and disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1977 was a mismatch: a lightweight shadowboxer vs. a lumbering ex-champ whose ducking ability and rises from the mat had frustrated all bettors against him.
On television, the interviews became a watershed spectacle, the dawning of checkbook journalism as entertainment, with entertainment redefined as watching icons twist slowly in the wind.
On stage, and now on screen, Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon is a fascinating war of words and personalities. What was at stake 31 years ago seems quaint today: a public confession (or denial) of political wrongdoing after years of stonewalling and coverups. Outrage is now a passing fancy, overcome with the passing of enough news cycles.
Nixon's public purging marked the last time an indictable politician could believe a rap could be beaten by staring down the one-eyed monsters known as TV cameras. Ron Howard's movie version of Morgan's play is a provocative retelling, capitalizing on the director's didactic style that sank The Da Vinci Code, among other films.
This is, after all, a story steeped in ideas, not actions. Frost/Nixon is likewise a movie of ideas, laid out in digestible fashion even for audiences too young to remember when truth was a treasured commodity. Anchored by two of 2008's finest performances, Howard's movie is one of the year's best.
Howard and Morgan, adapting his play, handily sketch the Watergate scandal — too complex for any movie besides All the President's Men — before settling into contrasting character studies. Frost (Michael Sheen) is the social animal that Nixon (Frank Langella) wasn't, likely causing some jealousy. But Frost never tasted true political battle, which is Nixon's advantage for public redemption.
Frost/Nixon smartly dramatizes their verbally intense pas de deux, through negotiations on topics, through interviews steered by mind games, to a post-interview meeting when Nixon's self-awareness finally shows. Howard cannily presents small details that illuminate the men's images: Nixon with an eye for the ladies and a habit of drinking and talking too much; Frost as an insecure opportunist, portrayed so effortlessly by Sheen that its brilliance isn't evident until a second viewing.
Langella doesn't particularly resemble Nixon except for the hairline and fake-sloped nose. But he embodies Nixon's rage against the culture of hate the president inspired. There's something noble in Nixon's persistence that subverting the U.S. Constitution was best for the nation, a perversity that Langella plays without irony but ferociously.
What Langella nails is the rumbling voice, strangely seductive at times and bullying at others. Yet there's a melancholy tenor to Nixon's barbs; he knows the jig is up but can't resist attempting to shoot his way out of the jam. When his bullets run out, Langella continues pulling the figurative trigger, until there's no sound except empty clicks and a faint echo of sympathy.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.