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Hail to the thief




*Frost/Nixon (R)

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Without Frost/Nixon, if he'd given us only his goofy Barack Obama endorsement that surfaced just before the election, we could've advised director Ron Howard to stay away from political filmmaking.

In that brief video, Howard addresses his audience directly in what he calls a demonstration of sincerity, outfitting himself (complete with wigs) as the characters he grew up playing on TV: Opie and Richie.

He even enlists Andy Griffith and Henry Winkler for the stunt. Then Howard tells us: "We haven't done those characters in decades. But the three of us agree that with Barack Obama, we Americans have a rare opportunity to elect an extraordinary president."

And the connection is ... what, exactly?

Happily, Howard's new movie offers a more coherent message. It's important to point out that, although timed to coincide with the departure of the often-Nixon-equated George W. Bush, Frost/Nixon's prognosis for America ultimately has more to do with growing up on television than with politics. But that's why Howard seems right for the job.

Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own 2006 play, Frost/Nixon dramatizes the origin and accomplishment of the 1977 TV interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and a post-Watergate, post-resignation Richard Nixon. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their roles from the award-winning stage version, and so it should be; the casting is definitive.

Sheen, so exact as Tony Blair in The Queen (another Morgan script), brings Frost alive more loosely, with a palpable combination of playboy cockiness and vulnerable status anxiety. He's a ratings-sensitive, reasonably famous media personality who's not taken seriously as a journalist and not entirely sure he wants to be.

Langella is not the first and probably won't be the last actor to portray the disgraced 37th president, but his ownership of the role crass and charming, sonorous and lumbering, venomous and self-loathing is total. This is so much more than an impersonation, and so completely consistent, that every once in a while it becomes hard to remember what the real Nixon looked like.

Through separate on-air occasions, Howard introduces the adversaries obliquely, watching as handlers prep them for broadcast. It's as if both Nixon and Frost are not real to us until they're camera-ready. Otherwise, the director generally has the good sense to get out of his actors' way.

Frost/Nixon is inherently reductive the actual interviews recorded nearly 29 hours of material and its dramatic stakes are accordingly simple. As Nixon puts it, both he and Frost want a way back to the "winner's podium," and they know that when their contest has ended, "the limelight can only shine on one of us." Each man, in other words, seeks the ultimate comeback redemption as defined by the public perception of legitimacy.

The duelists have their seconds, and thirds and fourths and so on. Kevin Bacon gamely plays Nixon's loyal aide, Marine Col. Jack Brennan, and Toby Jones is the president's peculiar, homuncular agent, Swifty Lazar. Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Rockwell round out team Frost.

Not unlike Howard's foray into political PSA, Frost/Nixon carries something of a so-what factor. It seems like an exercise mostly for its own sake. But there is also a sense of security with its own limitations. To Howard, understandably, it's an enduring fascination:

Nixon on TV = unhappy days.

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