Why is it that Richard M. Nixon remains one of the most fascinating historical figures when it comes to all things pop culture? Nixon masks, parodies, cartoons, comics, TV, music, film; he has sneaked his way into just about every medium of art you can think of. Was he a monster? A fool? A savior?

Many actors have portrayed Tricky Dick in film, the best Nixon performances I can think of would be Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s terrific, unjustly forgotten film Secret Honor, Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Dan Hedaya, who gave an outrageous, over-the-top portrayal in Dick. I’m just thinking about the different style and textures that these different actors had while play President Nixon. Then, look at Frank Langella’s performance in the exceptional new Ron Howard film Frost/Nixon. It’s parody, sort of, but also not. It’s a full-blown portrayal, he has the madness, the fervor, the self-hatred, the doubt. Langella is Nixon.

Of course, equally important to the story is David Frost (Michael Sheen), the man who interviewed Nixon three years after his resignation, and dared to ask the questions that had never been answered. The film is based upon the play by Peter Morgan (who also wrote the script), and Langella and Sheen have recreated their stage roles for the film. There could be no other two actors for these parts.

I don’t normally think of Ron Howard as a filmmaker of astonishing scope or breadth. This, of course, is really unfair, since he has directed some extraordinary films, like Apollo 13 and Parenthood. He has also directed some fine entertainments, like Cocoon, Splash, Night Shift and Willow (ok, Willow is pretty cheesy, but it’s still great). However, he also made The Grinch, which is in my opinion one of the worst films ever made. (I’m aware that he won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, which was a good movie, but by no means his best work. I think it was more of a lifetime achievement award).

Anyway, Frost/Nixon made me realize, you know what, this guy’s good. I think Ron Howard’s fame and popularity cloud the fact that he’s a talented director, and Frost/Nixon includes some of his finest work (it also includes a juicy role for Ron’s brother Clint, who appears in most of his films). Howard has taken a stage production and made it pulsate and bristle with intensity and energy. The heart of the film, the interviews, are filmed and edited like a boxing match, with Frost in one corner and Nixon in the other. Howard is not confined by the so-called limitations of filming what is, in actuality, two talking heads.

Langella and Sheen are both phenomenal in the film, of course, but I found the supporting cast just as important. Matthew Mcfadyen plays Frost’s producer, Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt play two researchers who doubt that Frost has what it takes to nail Nixon, Toby Jones (looking uncannily like Rod Steiger) plays Nixon’s literary agent, Rebecca Hall plays Frost’s girlfriend and Kevin Bacon plays Nixon’s chief of staff Jack Brennan. All the supporting parts are cast and played splendidly, but I especially liked Bacon’s work here. Here is a fine, unjustly underrated actor at the height of his powers, and I’m sure he’ll be robbed an Oscar nomination the way he was robbed one for The Woodsman and Mystic River (yes, you read that sentence right).

Frost/Nixon is an intriguing, thought-provoking film that captures a clash between two titans.

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