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Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009

Abuse of Power

Frost versus Nixon

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The American political drama that began in the upheaval of the 1960s reached its climax with the Watergate scandal and ended in 1974 with the resignation of Richard Nixon. An epilogue was added to the story when Nixon emerged from seclusion in 1977 for an interview with British TV talk-show host David Frost. Nixon thought it would be softball, but Frost wound up pitching a harder game than anyone expected.

Peter Morgan shaped this historical footnote into a widely acclaimed play, with Frank Langella winning a Tony for his portrayal of Nixon. Hollywood director Ron Howard (ABeautiful Mind) has successfully adapted Frost/Nixon into a film, retaining Langella, his sparring partner Michael Sheen (playing Frost) and Morgan as screenwriter. The result preserves the essence of the play while expanding its scope beyond the stage. The movie dramatizes the making of the TV interview, but the story's heart is the televised confrontation between Frost and Nixon. In Howard's hands the verbal joust is like a great courtroom drama, a gripping fencing match of sharpened words.

No one expected much from the encounter. Before the interview Frost was considered an amiable lightweight, better known for chatting with pop stars than interrogating politicians. Sheen plays the talk-show host as a glib glad-hander and polished hustler with a reserve of hidden sadness. As depicted in Frost/Nixon, he is coaxed and prodded into becoming a serious journalist for his session with the former president by his team of American researchers, political activists who relished the opportunity to bring Nixon down and corner him into a confession.

Villains often provide actors with their best material and the part of Nixon has provided Anthony Hopkins and now Langella with memorable starring roles. Langella's plumy, orotund diction and imperial manner is probably closer to Nixon's self-image than the uncomfortable public face of the real president. A lumbering bear licking his wounds in his lair, the seaside estate where he retreated after abandoning the White House, Langella's Nixon is charming, droll and disingenuous, sympathetic both for his roguish touch as well as his twitch of conscience. In a drunken late-night phone call to Frost, Nixon finds the common denominator between them: They were both little men from nowhere, set up to fail by their well-born social betters. Resentment against America's political and cultural elite fueled the engine of his desire for power and his determination to destroy all opponents.

It's been said that the crimes of Richard Nixon pale in contrast to what often passed for business as usual during the past eight years. Without beating on a shrill drum, Howard, Morgan and their cast allow the parallels to speak for themselves between the damage, then and now, of power abused.