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Nixon for Christmas 

 

If all high school history classes were as grandly entertaining as the historical flicks penned by Peter Morgan, no student would ever again be caught slumbering in his seat.

Morgan, who previously wrote the excellent script for the Helen Mirren Oscar winner The Queen, here brings his own play to the screen, and together he and director Ron Howard open it up so that the end result feels much more vibrant than merely a constricted stage piece plunked down in front of a camera. Blessed by an exquisite cast, the two men keep the wheels turning, offering a propulsive look at the most widely loathed U.S. president until George W. Bush stumbled along and easily swiped that designation.

Set after the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's subsequent resignation, the picture concerns itself with the attempts of Nixon (Frank Langella) to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of political irrelevance by holding a series of one-on-one television interviews with British TV host David Frost (Michael Sheen). Along with his right-hand man (Kevin Bacon) and his agent (Toby Jones as Swifty Lazar), Nixon believes that he can easily exert control over a show biz personality better known for his swinging lifestyle and his interviews with the likes of The Bee Gees. Nixon may have a point: Even though he has a crack team (Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) working for him, Frost initially has trouble keeping up with his mentally agile interviewee. The point of the interviews is to force Nixon to come clean to the American people about Watergate, but instead, it appears as if he will sweep the issue under the carpet and emerge as a champion of the people.

Several actors have played Tricky Dick on celluloid (Anthony Hopkins and Dan Hedaya among them), but Langella bests them all with an riveting portrayal that goes beyond mimicry. He depicts the former president as a haunted man struggling to salvage his legacy, a scrappy fighter who refuses to yield even a square inch to his challengers. If many audience members don't feel the slightest bit of pity for the Nixon that Langella brings to life, that certainly isn't the fault of the actor, who does everything necessary to humanize the ex-prez -- it's simply that too many Americans will always view Richard Milhous as monster rather than man.

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