Frank Langella could earn an Oscar for his portrayal of the disgraced U.S. president in Ron Howard's faithful film adaptation of Peter Morgan's award-winning play.
In fact, recreate may not be the best word; for if anything, Langella's work has actually deepened, bringing out all the inconsistencies in a man who literally ruined the country, and yet -- in Morgan's treatment -- comes off as mildly sympathetic. We see the insecurities, the doubts, the lack of self-esteem, as well as the monomania that led to Nixon's downfall, sometimes without Langella even saying a word. In short, it's a performance good enough to earn an Academy Award, and one that should be studied by every actor in America.
Howard has also wisely retained the services of British actor Michael Sheen, who played Frost in London and on Broadway. Like his co-star, Sheen goes way beyond mere impersonation to capture the full essence of Frost -- or as much as Morgan allows. While perhaps giving Frost a little intellectual short-shrift, Morgan smartly makes Frost the much-prettier version of Nixon to illustrate and heighten the work's dramatic conflict. (Their behavioral faults are close to identical, but Frost's blinding teeth and perfect hair mask a multitude of sins.)
Neither Howard nor Morgan has gone very far in "opening up" what remains a piece of stagecraft. Sure, there are plenty of exterior shots -- including a few particularly effective ones outside the house where the interviews were shot -- and a few characters who were only referred to onstage now make brief on-camera appearances (including Pat Nixon, portrayed briefly by former child actor Patty McCormack, and Diane Sawyer, in the personage of stage star Kate Jennings Grant).
But the work retains its theatrical feel, for better and worse. Luckily, the narration that seemed jarring on stage is lessened a bit here, in part because numerous characters are allowed to comment on the action, rather than just two. Nonetheless, such first-rate actors as Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew MacFayden, Toby Jones, and Rebecca Hall as Frost's investigators, producer, and girlfriend respectively, only manage to make a minimal impression.
The heart of the work, though is still the taping of the actual interviews -- and not the hubbub surrounding them -- especially Nixon's shocking decision to finally admit his wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Those scenes dominate the latter section of Frost/Nixon and are essentially worth the price of admission.
The only actor who comes close to competing with the movie's leads is Kevin Bacon, who proves absolutely riveting -- and ultimately heartbreaking -- as Nixon's ultra-devoted chief aide Jack Brennan, who seems to take Nixon's "confession" harder than anyone else in his circle.
As America prepares to welcome its 44th president, there may be a strong temptation to want to forget about Nixon entirely and focus on a brighter future. But to not see this film -- specifically Langella's towering performance -- would be a mistake, if not necessarily a crime.