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Originally published December 11, 2008 at 3:00 PM | Page modified December 11, 2008 at 3:19 PM

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Movie review

"Frost/Nixon": An electrifying faceoff between two actors that flawlessly slip into character

Frank Langella brilliantly embodies the fierce, flawed spirit of a failed president in "Frost/Nixon." Review by Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

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Frank Langella portrays Richard Nixon, left, and Michael Sheen portrays David Frost in a scene from the film, "Frost/Nixon."

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Frank Langella portrays Richard Nixon, left, and Michael Sheen portrays David Frost in a scene from the film, "Frost/Nixon."

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Frost/Nixon, " with Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell. Directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on Morgan's play. 122 minutes. Rated R for some language. Meridian.

MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

Last year, the great Frank Langella gave a remarkable screen performance that virtually nobody saw. In "Starting Out in the Evening," he played a writer in his 70s, struggling to finish what will surely be his final novel, and his ability to let emotion fade to and from his face like dawn and twilight was heartbreaking. Now, in "Frost/Nixon," he's starring in a film that people will likely see, in a role that's a tour de force (and that he previously played to great acclaim on stage). For Langella, who's never had an Oscar nomination and whose leading roles in feature films are rare, it's high time.

His role in "Frost/Nixon" could have all too easily fallen into caricature: former President Nixon, with his rumbly growl and jowly grimaces. The film, adapted by Peter Morgan ("The Queen") from his own play and directed by Ron Howard, is a sprightly yet ultimately haunting rendering of the events surrounding Nixon's historic series of television interviews with British talk-show host David Frost in 1977, three years after he resigned from the presidency. Marvelously enacted by Michael Sheen (who played the role opposite Langella on stage as well), Frost is a chipper, ever-smiling glad-hander who stands in sharp opposition to his dour interview subject; indeed their initial meeting is set up like two opposing troops marching into battle. "I've never been challenged to a duel before," intones Nixon to Frost, whose smile quickly fades. Clearly, the former president welcomes the challenge.

Langella's Nixon is a sly negotiator with an unexpected knack for folksy humor (hearing the cost of the broadcast, he exclaims, "Geez, I didn't realize we were making 'Ben-Hur' ") and a deep sensitivity to questions about the scandal he pronounces as "Wudder-gate." (Langella slips easily into the basement of that familiar Nixon rumble, rarely changing pitch.) His shoulders slump, but his eyes blaze; there's still plenty of fight in him. "When the president does it," he says, in an electrifying exchange in the interviews, "that means it's not illegal. But I realize no one else shares that view."

Morgan's adaptation opens out the play effectively, zipping us from Washington to London to California and introducing a host of supporting characters, some of whom narrate the film in faux-documentary style: a tight-jawed Kevin Bacon as Nixon loyalist Jack Brennan; Sam Rockwell as writer and Frost's chief Watergate researcher James Reston Jr., who memorably described the former president's face as "swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat." (The talented Rebecca Hall, however, is wasted in a throwaway role as Frost's love interest.)

Howard gives it all an appealing, speedy pace, but most important he gives his two lead actors room to create their complicated, showy characters. Nixon, at film's end, is ultimately a terribly sad figure, as Langella conveys, sometimes wordlessly, his heavy burden of failure and lack of self-awareness. (You sense that he knew he did wrong but doesn't know what he would have done differently.) In a final farewell to Frost, he awkwardly admits his admiration of the younger man's social ease. "You have no idea how fortunate that makes you," Nixon tells him. "Liking people. Being liked." He turns toward the sunset, as his moment in history fades away: a man disappearing before our eyes, as an actor's stature grows ever larger.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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