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Up to his old tricks: Frank Langella is a brainy, powerful Richard Nixon in Ron Howard's new movie

IN THIS, the season of the movie vampire, we're reminded that "Frost/Nixon" star Frank Langella is a former Dracula.

Sheen flirts with Rebecca Hall.
Sheen flirts with Rebecca Hall.Read more

IN THIS, the season of the movie vampire, we're reminded that "Frost/Nixon" star Frank Langella is a former Dracula.

Did that help him land the role of Richard Nixon in Ron Howard's new movie?

It probably didn't hurt, and his background as a bloodsucker won't ease suspicions in some quarters that "Frost/Nixon" is another bashing of the disgraced Nixon, whose stock in Hollywood probably hasn't risen since Anthony Hopkins played him as a demented, noxious drunk in "Nixon."

But "Frost/Nixon" is a more substantial, rewarding movie, in large measure due to Langella's success in bringing real weight to Nixon - he punches a big hole in the screen and fills it with the formidable intelligence that even Nixon opponents found so undeniable and unnerving.

Nixon really LOOMS in this movie, and that's essential to the mano-a-mano title bout that Ron Howard (fresh off "Cinderella Man") builds up to in "Frost/Nixon" - at first, an apparent mismatch between the highly substantial Nixon and the shallow, stylish TV interrogator David Frost (Michael Sheen).

At the time of the interview, Frost is a variety show impresario in Australia and England whose biggest "get" is the Bee Gees. Frost is a playboy, a has-been, and the Nixon camp (Kevin Bacon is very good as Nixon's right-hand man) is overjoyed that it's landed pushover Frost instead of pit bull Mike Wallace.

The movie certainly isn't out to make Nixon look good, but you get the idea that Howard and company aren't after Tricky Dick. They want to expose something in Frost, the electronic media playboy who is superficial, outmatched, unprepared (as the national press corps was accused of being in the run-up to the Iraq war).

Frost appears to be guilty as charged. His British producer (Matthew MacFadyen) has hired a first-rate team of researchers and investigators (Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt) to prep Frost, but Frost dismisses them.

And while Frost pours his own money into the project, he isn't investing in respectability - he wants the celebrity attention that faded when his show was canceled in the U.S. The interviews take place in Los Angeles, and he squanders the days leading up to the interview the attending movie premieres, etc.

It's not until Nixon humiliates Frost in some of the early sessions that Frost realizes what's at stake - only then does he drop the posture of star and start to work as a journalist.

Hand in hand with Frost's late-game professionalism is his intuitive understanding of television - something obviously shared by director Howard, who grew up on TV before mastering the trade of director.

You can tell Howard loved recreating the interviews. He has an obvious feel for the vintage cameras and monitors, and for the stagecraft of the surprisingly low-grade production (shot in the living room of a Republican fund-raiser). He also has a knack for tightly focused historical drama, as shown in "Apollo 13."

Howard isn't much for poetic touches, though, and tends to fall back on spell-it-out voiceovers to illuminate the movie's ideas about television, how it favors some and impugns others, not always on the basis of merit. *

Produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, directed by Ron Howard, written by Peter Morgan, music by Hans Zimmer, distributed by Universal Pictures.