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HUNTER AND THE PREY: Michael Sheen's David Frost meets Frank Langella's Richard Nixon.

The Jackal in Winter

'Frost/Nixon' allows us to relive the days when the devil got a second chance at redemption.

By Richard von Busack

His ghost must be comforted. No one thinks of him as the worst president in U.S. history any longer. And now one of our most tireless American mythmakers takes on Richard M. Nixon. Mistaking himself to be Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard does this fast and shot-from-the-hip opening-up of a celebrated play by Peter Morgan (The Queen).

We are supposed to be seeing the inside story of how, in 1977, British TV personality and producer David Frost (Michael Sheen, Tony Blair in The Queen) decided to buy ex-President Nixon's time for a set of four TV interviews. The networks aren't interested, and the financing is shaky. Frost tries to keep a brave face while worrying over the money. Meanwhile, the producer/personality tries to keep a tentative thing going with a new girl (Rebecca Hall, used for decorative value).

Frost discovers he is out of his depth, having failed to pay sufficient attention to his team of researchers. There are two such researchers who stand out: Sam Rockwell's idealistic James Reston Jr. and Oliver Platt's worldly Bob Zelnick. Reston says, "I'd like to give Richard Milhous Nixon the trial he never had."

Nixon seems to psych Frost out through false friendliness. He promises a "no-holds-barred" bout. Unfortunately, the film of Frost/Nixon holds its holds. It recalls that old National Lampoon piece about Nixon's 24 redeeming qualities: "(1.) Plays the piano beautifully; (2.) Enjoys an occasional cigar in private; (3.); (4.); (5.)" and so on, blank and blank again all the way to (24.).

We see Nixon tickling the ivories and suffering the indignities of the rubber-chicken circuit. Frost/Nixon encourages us to think of the wrong done to Tricky Dicky: the snubbings, the political partisan attacks and the troubles he brought upon himself through sheer nerves. There is a certain tragedy in a man who never felt right making public appearances, pressing the flesh and lying like a rug. There is also a certain comedy, but Howard isn't attuned to that part of the story.

The surfaces are rollicking, the 1970s ugh factor played in the art direction and costuming, with its macramé owls and brown corduroy sports coats. And certainly, Frank Langella is a longtime favorite actor in this corner.

This script gives us Nixon's curious, Abe Simpson-like ramblings and the tragic attempts to be colloquial, the best being his attempt to buddy up to Frost by asking him how he spent the previous evening: "Did you do any fornicating?"

As the President of Darkness, Langella is only vaguely Nixon-colored. He's a larger, more assured character than the real animal. While the rumbling voice might have carried the part onstage, that dignity that Langella cannot smother in himself makes this illusion dissonant.

I'm not sure Frost/Nixon works much better as history than it does as drama. Was it a match of two warriors, slugging it out before the TV cameras of 1977? It was, in fact, typical Frost: Mr. Obsequiousness giving a shady politician a bully pulpit and a chance to remake himself as a misunderstood statesman. (And just in time for last-minute holiday giving, Liberation Entertainment has released the original interviews on DVD.)

At the time, it was understood that what Nixon went through during those several nights on TV was not a "trial" but a minor and well-compensated tribulation. The L.A. Times' editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad got it right: the day after the broadcast, he depicted Nixon diving through a pile of dollar bills like Scrooge McDuck.

Like Frost, Howard is doing the commendable thing of reaching above himself for tough material. But thinking of Nixon as a defeated old actor in retirement is a crazy kind of fallacy, and unfortunately Frost/Nixon borders on just that kind of thought.

Movie Times FROST/NIXON (R; 122 min.), directed by Ron Howard, written by Peter Morgan, photographed by Salvatore Totino and starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, opens Friday at the Aptos Cinema.

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