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Frost And Nixon, Clashing For The Cameras

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Frost And Nixon, Clashing For The Cameras

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Frost And Nixon, Clashing For The Cameras

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Almost six years after that, Richard Nixon resigned over the dirty tricks of the Watergate scandal. Three years later, Nixon broke his public silence on Watergate in interviews with a British talk show host, David Frost. The story of that TV face-off is now a movie. Bob Mondello has this review of "Frost/Nixon."

BOB MONDELLO: There was something centrally disreputable about the Frost-Nixon interviews back in 1977. Nixon got paid a lot of money for them, which made them suspect as journalism. David Frost was a lightweight TV personality who wasn't even from the U.S., which made him suspect as an interrogator, and no one really expected him to outwit a seasoned politico who was - not for nothing - known as Tricky Dick, least of all Nixon himself or his advisers.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. KEVIN BACON: (As Jack Brennan) Frost is just not in your intellectual class, sir. You're going to be able to dictate terms, rebuild your reputation. If just went well, if enough people saw it, revised their opinion, you could move back east way, way earlier than we expected.

Mr. FRANK LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) I guess it all boils down to Watergate, huh?

Mr. BACON: (As Jack Brennan) That's nothing to worry about, sir. It's not as if there's going to be any revelations. This stuffs been combed over million times; no one has pinned anything on you.

MONDELLO: On the Frost side of the equation, the calculus was a little different, but even Frost's researchers had their doubts. They wanted to give Nixon the trial he'd never had, but the wily, old politician ran rings around his questioner in the first few days of interviews, and despair set in quickly for everyone except Frost.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) I thought today was a huge improvement.

Unidentified Man #2: Are you nuts? Let me tell you how bad things were today. After the taping finished, I overheard two members of the crew say they never voted for him when they had the chance. But if he ran for office again today, he'd get their support. You're making him look presidential for...

MONDELLO: "Frost/Nixon" was originally written for the stage, where it depended so much on the notion of a David and Goliath mismatch, it could almost have been called "Froth/Nixon." That's less true on screen, though there's still something a little glib about Peter Morgan's script, which spends an awful lot of time making Michael Sheen's Frost a comic dilettante opposite Frank Langella's Nixon, who doesn't just look presidential, but kind of Shakespearean - a tragic figure, rather than a guy who covered up a burglary. Happily, director Ron Howard takes a quasi-documentary approach that has the effect of giving Frost more heft on screen - news footage and behind-the-scenes shots of TV monitors, making it clear that he's better at using this emotionally cool medium than Nixon was, especially in the interview's big showdown.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) What we were all doing was not criminal. Look, when you're in office, you've got to do a lot of things sometimes that are not always, in the strictest sense of the law, legal. But you'll them because they're in the greater interests of the nation.

Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) Wait, wait, just so I understand correctly. Are you really saying that in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?

Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal.

Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) I'm sorry?

MONDELLO: Langella's Nixon isn't an impersonation; you could find other actors who'd do that guttural growl more precisely. But he and Sheen are great foils for each other as the old man's defenses finally begin to crumble. Regardless, it's not their sparring but the presentation of it that's meant to grab you, because a case is being made here that it wasn't really Frost who did Nixon in. It was Nixon's old nemesis, the TV camera - that unblinking eye, capturing every bead of perspiration, every nervous shift of posture, every furrow in a guilt-ridden presidential brow. It's a case the stage version of "Frost/Nixon" made an intellectual argument for, buttressed by a wall of TV screens. But theater being a medium of words, and film, a medium of images, here, the case is made visceral, in merciless close-ups, blown up so much larger than life. I'm Bob Mondello.

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