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Interview With the Vampire

MOVIE REVIEW
Frost/Nixon (2008)

2358_D024_08912
Ralph Nelson/Universal Studios

Anticipation levels weren’t particularly high for the Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival’s opening film, perhaps because the latest effort from Ron Howard isn’t the kind of prospect to set a festival crowd’s pulses racing. Mr. Howard may also have seemed like a desperately uncool choice of director to adapt Peter Morgan’s hip play, but he in fact does a very good job with a script that leaves no room for his trademark mawkishness. He also delivers a film that’s much more cinematic than Stephen Frears’s direction of Mr. Morgan’s screenplay of "The Queen."

Pleasingly, the play’s forthright and significant title has been retained, even if British TV host David Frost (here played by Michael Sheen) is nowhere near as familiar to American audiences as the notorious, no-forename-necessary President Nixon (Frank Langella). These two contrasting figures came together for a series of televised interviews in 1977, a meeting that both parties were banking would resurrect their declining fortunes. As it happened the interviews would go down in folklore as a daring piece of TV journalism, but "Frost/Nixon" conveys how monumental the pressures became on the seemingly frivolous figure of Frost to extract an admission of guilt from Nixon just a year after Watergate. Mr. Howard effortlessly conveys the mounting tension as hours of scheduled interview time slips away punctuated only by Nixon’s long rambles, until Frost finally starts to close in on his nemesis.

In a sense, Frost in the typical plucky American hero, an unpretentious underdog and an ambitious dreamer who refuses to back down once he’s on a quest. Viewed in that light, this big-studio, name-director adaptation of Mr. Morgan’s play doesn’t seem so incongruous.

The contrasts and similarities between the two men are the major themes of the work; and the most important scene in this regard is the unexpected late-night phone conversation on the eve of their final session, during which Nixon outlines how similar these men of humble origin really are. The other significant scene is, obviously, the moment of Nixon’s confession, which on stage was emphasized by being displayed on a large TV screen. Both of these scenes are standouts here, with Mr. Langella’s Nixon being a riveting creation to watch and one that comes across even more convincing on film than it did on stage.

Elsewhere there is very little deviation from Mr. Morgan’s original play, and Mr. Sheen enhances his growing reputation by translating his stage role consummately. Another major plus is the quality of supporting actors like Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell. Salvatore Totino’s photography does a good job of opening out the play by utilizing a Scope ratio and emphasizing the rosy hues of Californian springtime.

"Frost/Nixon" is a quality production but perhaps isn’t quite good enough to pick up the major prizes during next year’s awards season (Mr. Langella aside, perhaps), for which its release seems to be timed. But it has confidence and a gloss reminiscent of similar period TV portraits like "Quiz Show" or "Good Night, and Good Luck," and its message that everyone is equal in the glare of the media – including a playboy TV host and a former president – should be one that goes down well with the critics.

FROST/NIXON

Opens on Dec. 5 in New York and on Jan. 23, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Peter Morgan, based on his stage play; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Brian Grazer, Mr. Howard, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Frank Langella (Richard Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick) and Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jr.).

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