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"Frost/Nixon" *** (122 minutes)

Sunday February 8, 2009

With exactly a week left until the AA's, I took in the last of the Best Picture nominees: director Ron Howard's homage to the confrontation between an Australian TV personality trying to make a serious name for himself, and a disgraced President. The famous series of 4 interviews held in 1977 is noteworthy for the fact that Frost got the stonewalling ex-president to stop stonewalling and admitting for the first time publicly that he committed criminal acts while in Oval Office.

What is really interesting is the behind the scenes maneuverings that led up to the dramatic moment. We witness first hand the inner workings of the TV industry and the fascinating confrontations that were taking place in both camps as each tried to get the upper hand.

Howard has gathered a terrific cast and the performances to match. Michael Sheen (so wonderful as Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen") and longtime vet Frank Langella masterfully recreate their Broadway roles, with Frank garnishing the AA nod as Best Actor. However, I feel Michael got slighted as his Frost is the more compelling and textured. You first meet him as a sort of has-been exiled to Australia after a flubbed TV career in Britain and in The States. In order to resurrect his career, he goes extremely out on the limb and tries to land his prize fish by, ultimately, putting up his own cash to do it. Lacking credibility in the industry, he is turned down one by one by all the major networks with advertisers unwilling to back him.

It is at this point that he becomes desperate and the story turns somewhat into a thriller (backed admirably in this regard by composer Hans Zimmer's dramatic score). How this TV lightweight gets the results he needs is what propels the story in the 2nd act.

Various known personalities dot the film from Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) to TV newsman Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to columnist James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Even Diane Sawyer (played by Kate Jennings Grant) is present as someone who worked for Nixon at the time of the interviews. It was also interesting to see long ago child actor Patty McCormack (first seen in 1956's "The Bad Seed") as Pat Nixon.

The problem for me was trying to determine what was real and what wasn't. The crucial late night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost just before the final interview was undoubtedly fictionalized as were several of the side stories. However, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote the play) has infused enough real life drama into the script to keep you interested-even though you know how it will all turn out.

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