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“Frost/Nixon” a nail-biting battle of wits

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

There’s power in punctuation that words sometimes can’t match. Don’t buy that? Take a gander at the title of screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan’s retelling of 1977 interviews between TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and former U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): “Frost/Nixon.” That’s a slash — not a hyphen, not a dash — and the subtext is pointed. It suggests a commonality; it means Frost and Nixon. Look closer and that slash becomes a little more hostile:  It means Frost or Nixon. Frost versus Nixon.

So which is it? Is “Frost/Nixon” a movie about a meeting of the minds, 0r is it an intellectual jousting match? Answer: It’s both, thanks to the nimble yet complex script adapted from a play by Morgan (“The Queen”). Both Frost and Nixon are men in search of something. For Frost, a superstar in Australia, it’s the chance to achieve American fame; for Nixon, it’s a shot at cleaning up his image while collecting a cool $600,000. But shared interests matter little in a duel, since only one man can walk away the victor.

Oh, what a fight this is. Sheen is Frost, a charismatic playboy who’s equal parts Wayne Gayle (minus the Aussie twang) and Oscar Wilde. His show’s a cheeky hit in Australia, but he lusts for U.S. fame. “There’s nothing like it,” he tells his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). And coaxing Nixon into an on-camera apology for Watergate, Frost figures, will win him plenty of Yank fans. He hires two investigators — Bob Zelnick (a delightfully droll Oliver Platt) and professor/author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) — to dig up dirt on Watergate and figures his work is practically done.

But Frost understimates Nixon, who comes armed with a formidable PR team led by his doggedly loyal post-presidential chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Nixon’s quicker than Frost, more practiced in twisting words, and there’s an impish gleam in the former president’s eye that suggests he delights in the challenge.

You see, it’s expactly this serve/return, advance/retreat strategy that makes “Frost/Nixon” so captivating. Morgan taps into something visceral and elemental, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest instinct that, at times, makes “Frost/Nixon” feel like a National Geographic documentary about a lioness stalking a wounded gazelle. Part of the excitement comes from watching Sheen and Langella trade roles; you’re never quite sure who’s the lion and who’s the gazelle, and every time the answer seems clear it’s not. Even those who’ve seen the interviews will be left wondering. Morgan’s that good. Perhaps he’s scored a breakthrough with this one.

Credit, too, must go to Sheen and Langella, who redefine the “less is more” approach to acting. Here are two actors who have a formidable command of facial expressions. This is a movie where the beauty is in the expressions and body language. Nobody but nobody does fear and awkwardness like Sheen (he bests his performance in “The Queen” by leaps and bounds). Watch him sweep uncomfortable grimaces into big, toothy, fake smiles that don’t quite reach his eyes. That’s where the magic happens — his eyes. They give everything away. There’s a sadness, and later, a steely resolve there that suggest Frost is far more than some shallow dandy.

And yes, there’s a reason Langella earned an Oscar nod for his work as Nixon. His Nixon is a tricky one, alright, a man with an uncanny ability to worm his way out of nearly any trap. Still, Langella conveys more emotions with one frown, one sideways glance, one arched eyebrow than most actors can in pages of dialogue. But he can be explosive. There’s a phone call (fictionalized apparently) between interviewer and interviewee where Langella lets loose a near-volcanic explosion of anger. It’s frightening to behold, but try to turn away. This is the kind of multi-layered performance Oscars were made for.

Layers. Yes, “Frost/Nixon” is all about layers — of emotions, of meaning, of subtleties, of complexities. And those layers are what make this simply done but immensely powerful docudrama one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A