01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Frost/Nixon : Nixon Comes Alive

Some movies, adapted from a play or a book, make you want to seek out the source material to see if they got it right.

But Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon feels like a complete work unto itself: polished, evocative, unexpectedly funny and tense -- and surprisingly emotional. It doesn't make me wish I'd seen the Broadway play on which it is based. Just the opposite: I was glad to come to it fresh, without a preconception about what it could, should or would be.

Over the years, Howard has earned his reputation as a craftsman, not an artist. He understands the emotional beats of a movie better than any other director working -- sometimes to a fault. There's not an edgy bone in his body and even seemingly risky material -- such as A Beautiful Mind -- has its edges sanded off and gets the Hollywood treatment, to its detriment.

But Frost/Nixon has a resonance and power exactly because Howard is on such solid footing here. He's a humanist looking for the elements that make us alike, rather than for what sets us apart from each other.

God knows I've never felt sympathy for Richard Nixon. There was a time when I thought we'd never have a worse, more destructive president. (Then Reagan was elected. And then George W. Bush came along, setting a standard which, hopefully, will never be topped for sheer malevolent incompetence.)

Yet, in the hands of Howard and, particularly, Frank Langella, Nixon comes alive in a startlingly real way - and you feel for him. Langella doesn't resemble Nixon, yet his vocal rhythms, the hunch with which he walks, his obvious discomfort with small talk - they consistently convince you that you're getting a look at what Nixon really was like in private.

The story, such as it is, deals with David Frost's efforts to package and sell a series of interviews with the disgraced president to American television after Nixon's 1974 resignation. It took him until 1977 to put the deal together.

The networks turned him down flat. They didn't like the idea of paying Nixon for an interview (he got $600,000, a king's ransom three decades ago), and they were even less sanguine about letting Frost, a non-American whose main reputation was as a talk-show host and ladies' man, interview the most controversial president in American history.

So, even as he was paying Nixon out of his own pocket (and watching his talk shows in Australia and England founder), Frost was cobbling together a list of second-tier sponsors (Weedeater and Alpo are the brands mentioned in the movie) and a network of independent stations on which his interviews could run. At the same time, his producer was hammering out an agreement for the interviews themselves: how much time Nixon would give, where it would be taped, what subjects would be discussed (no more than 25 percent of the time could be devoted to Watergate).

These machinations make for compelling background, so that the interviews themselves initially almost feel like an anticlimax. Michael Sheen (so good as Tony Blair in The Queen) conveys the outward aplomb and inner turmoil as Frost tap-dances across the tumultuous, rapidly changing landscape he needs to traverse just to get to that first sit-down with Nixon - which turns out to be a colossal bust.

Frost isn't just getting pressured by sponsors, TV stations and Nixon's people - he's battling his own set of researchers. Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (a terrific Sam Rockwell) have their own agenda: They want to nail Nixon, to get him to admit - and apologize for - all the things he did that Gerald Ford's pardon kept him from having to explain. But they regard Frost as a dilettante, a flyweight posing as a journalist - and someone about to give Nixon a pass into the history books unscathed.

Nixon, meanwhile, is fortifying the fortress. He approaches the interviews as a duel - and he's building his defenses, creating walls that he will dare Frost to breach. He prepares digressions, diversions - anything to give the appearance of candor while actually giving up nothing.

The scenes between Sheen and Langella have amazing emotional complexity. This is a dance of two men with something to prove - and each must use the other without being used himself. It's a tango that also serves as single combat - they need each other, but they also need to defeat their opponent.

That's tricky stuff, but the actors and Howard capture it beautifully. Langella in particular gets beneath Nixon's skin in a way Anthony Hopkins never did in Oliver Stone's Nixon. He conveys Nixon's defensiveness but also the vulnerability that fuels it - his expectation of defeat, his sense that he deserves it, his unspoken belief that the people who spent their lives tearing him down were right all along.

Sheen does something similar. Behind Frost's eyes, there's the acknowledgement that, yes, he's afraid that he really is a shallow little man who has overreached by trying to tangle with history. He's got the British cool - the sense that nothing will ruffle his feathers - but also the fear that, at long last, something will catch up with him that he can't simply glide over with charm and wit.

Frost/Nixon may be the most satisfying film of the year, taking a familiar subject (for those of us old enough to remember watching the original interviews) and providing new context and insight. Like Apollo 13, perhaps his most underrated and stirring film, Frost/Nixon shows Ron Howard at his best, giving well-known characters new depth and facets.

Before I saw it, I would have said nothing could ever make me feel sorry for Richard Nixon. I was wrong.