See This: Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)
Sean Penn has some serious competition for best actor at the Oscars thanks to a revelatory performance by Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in the brilliant Frost/Nixon. Langella already has a Tony Award for originating the part in Peter Morgan's stage version, but the way Ron Howard has captured him here is nothing short of amazing. Both Penn -- as Harvey Milk -- and Langella do that astonishing thing where they so completely inhabit a character that you forget you're watching an actor.
That's not to slight Michael Sheen (best known for his portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen) and his fabulous interpretation of David Frost, who overcame his chat show host background to set the standard for political interviews. In 1977, Nixon agreed to sit down for a series of interviews with Frost (whom he considered a lightweight) to try and rebuild his reputation after the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation. Nixon didn't count on Frost, who was in his own form of exile doing a chat show in Australia, being so well-prepared for the interview. Frost was able to coax Nixon into a tacit admission of guilt -- the only one he would ever give. Those interview sessions are faithfully recreated, but it's the backstage intrigue that really gives the film juice.
Sheen plays Frost as a debonair playboy type jetting about with beautiful women, but he's also painfully aware that his career is bottoming out. He's not taken seriously and is desperate to land an interview with someone who will give him credibility. He agrees to pay Nixon $600,000 for the interview, hoping to recoup the loss from selling the interview to a major US network, but they all pass. Frost basically goes door to door looking for sponsors (from Xerox to Weedeater) to syndicate the interview, but no one is willing to give him an opportunity. Even his producer and researchers feel Frost is in way over his head.
Nixon has been banished -- he frequently calls it "the wilderness" -- and is looking for any avenue to rebuild his reputation. There are humiliating speeches to businessmen and orthodontists and a growing sense of need to unburden himself of the truth. Thinking he'll be able to control the interview with Frost and charm his way back into America's good grace, Nixon misjudges Frost and his crack team of researchers. There's a brilliant imagined scene where Nixon drunk dials Frost and talks about his failures, his desire to fit in, to be liked and to "make the motherfuckers choke" who sent him into the wilderness. Langella earns his Oscar nomination in the scene and again when he confesses on camera to his role in Watergate. Like in the real interview, the close up of Langella's Nixon shows a haunted, beaten man who had convinced himself he was doing the right thing, not only with Watergate but in Vietnam.
I have to admit I was moved (yes, even welled up a bit) at this portrayal of Nixon and his deep flaws. That's a credit to Langella, playwright/screenwriter Morgan and Howard for making the audience feel sympathy for Nixon. Oliver Stone also managed this thanks to Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Nixon, but Langella takes it a step further by finding a humanity in the man who was the poster child for president-gone-bad until George W. Bush came along. The release of Frost/Nixon -- again like Milk -- could not come at more prescient time as questions swirl about how Bush's wretched presidency will be remembered. Nixon, for all is wrongdoing and bigotry, was a smart man and did much to advance the country and foreign relations.
Frost/Nixon is Howard's best film to date without a doubt. It's tight, straight-forward and never falls into self-indulgence. Like Milk, it has a documentary air about it, and the location filming at Nixon's real San Clemente home and the Beverly Hilton give the film credibility and period detail. The supporting cast, which includes Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell and an excellent turn by Kevin Bacon as Nixon's trusted aid, all bring this story to life magnificently. It's two hours well-spent in the cinema. The Oscar race is definitely heating up.