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NY Theater Reviews

Frank Langella



Frost/Nixon has made a successful move from stage to celluloid. Here the two halves of the title have come into perfect balance.

Adaptations of Broadway hits were once surefire Best Picture bait at the Oscars, but there hasn't been one on the hook since Jack Nicholson told Tom Cruise he couldn't handle the truth in A Few Good Men in 1992. Making a speedy, and seamless, transition from stage to screen, the Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated Frost/Nixon has broken the long dry spell. Directing Doubt, playwright John Patrick Shanley opened out the piece in dubious ways. In adapting Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan stuck to his original script, with his original stars, and Ron Howard's direction is at its thoughtful, middlebrow best. It was, and is, solidly entertaining.

And in one part it is revelatory. Frank Langella's powerful, pitiable Nixon, modulated for film, has the exact same impact. (If he wins Best Actor, he'll be the tenth performer to claim both a Tony and an Oscar for the same part, joining Paul Scofield, whose shoes he successfully filled in the recent revival of A Man for All Seasons.) But on the film the two halves of the show's title have come into perfect balance. Frost needs the presidential seal of approval to validate his vague unease with his showbiz success Nixon wants his distracted and unfocused interviewer to keep his eye on the ball, so he can unburden himself publicly in a fair fight. Onstage, Langella dominated the "cheeseburger" phone call sequence, where the measure of both men is taken, even in his silences. Here, editing gives Michael Sheen's Frost a greater right of response as the president drunkenly harangues. His is an expert, and underrated, performance brought centerstage, so to speak, on film.

A play called Frost/Nixon wouldn't appear to leave much for the actors not playing Frost or Nixon, and while the supporting parts are wittily written they made only a fleeting impression on Broadway. For the film Howard has cast performers with greater force of personality to play the aide de camps, and Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and Kevin Bacon (one of the few good men, coincidentally) hold the screen for a few minutes as the leads prepare for their sparring. (Shot on location, or reasonable facsimiles circa 1977, the movie does away with the looming video effects that were integral to the show's design the medium and the message have merged.) One actress unexpectedly hugs the camera: Cast as Frost's skeptical girlfriend, an unformed part in the show, Vicky Cristina Barcelona co-star Rebecca Hall sparkles. Theatergoers who recognize her from her participation in The Bridge Project, currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, are also likely to spot the original Bad Seed, Patty McCormack, as Pat Nixon, and, for a microsecond, Guys and Dolls revival co-star Kate Jennings Grant as Diane Sawyer.

The show erred in making too much of a mountain out of the molehill of the actual interviews, which were more of a good "get" for Frost than anything of lasting impact. The movie compounds the error by boldly asserting that the interviews accelerated Nixon's decline, when by the time of his death, in 1994, he was all but rehabilitated historically. The material's shaky foundation groans with the weight of self-importance-but Frost/Nixon, absorbing theater, has made for lively cinema as well.