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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Fireworks at "Frost/Nixon" Washington screening

December 2, 2008 | 12:04 pm

This is the time of year when every studio with starry-eyed award-season hopes has hundreds of endless opinion maker screenings where filmmakers get to talk about their movies in the kind of lofty circles that might impress Oscar voters. So it was no surprise to see that Universal had a high-powered screening in Washington last night for "Frost/Nixon," the Ron Howard-directed adaptation of Peter Morgan's savvy stage play that chronicles the 1977 TV showdown between disgraced former President Richard Nixon (played by Frank Langella) and checkbook journalist David Frost (played by Michael Sheen). Frostnixon_2After the screening, noted historian Robert Dallek hosted a discussion with Howard, Morgan and journalist James Reston Jr., who was one of Frost's researchers for the original interviews.

The joint was full of old Watergate hands, including Watergate committee counsel Richard Ben-Veniste and the ageless ex-CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr, who proudly told the audience that he was "No. 14 on Nixon's enemies list." According to a clever dispatch from Gawker, Howard revealed during the discussion that he'd actually voted for Nixon. But the real fireworks came during the audience Q&A session, when Fox News reporter Chris Wallace (whose dad, Mike, was a fixture at CBS News during the Watergate era) took issue with Howard and Co.'s comparison of Nixon's transgressions to George Bush's post 9/11 war on terror abuses, especially Reston's description of the movie as "a metaphor for George W. Bush."

"I think to compare what Nixon did, and the abuses of power for pure political self-preservation, to George W. Bush trying to protect the country -- even if you disagree with rendition or waterboarding -- it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history both then and now," said Wallace. He added that Bush's so-called abuses were in the service of protecting the country, not himself, saying "the fact is that we sit here so comfortably, and the country has not been attacked again since 9/11."

It sounds like it was far more lively than the usual award season screening session, where (having hosted a few myself) the moderator usually finds himself dividing his time between preventing crackpot audience members from delivering 10-minute monologues about their pet screenplay to stifling another long-winded digression about the acting "process" from a self-absorbed movie star. Surely Peter Morgan, who writes wonderful dialogue himself, must have appreciated the following zesty exchange between Dallek and Wallace, after Dallek said that we can only imagine the full sinister scope of the Bush presidency, since historians haven't yet had the opportunity to dig up the dirt on Bush's worst excesses.

Wallace: "You make suppositions on no facts whatsoever."

Dallek: "Do you read the New York Times?"

If nothing else, the evening was another poke in the nose to the outgoing conservative establishment, who were pretty grumpy about the prospect of hearing the Hollywood left Nixonize the Bush years. As Fox News' James Pinkerton put it, the screening represented "a happy masque of liberal triumphalism," which I guess means that all the news footage I've been watching the past four weeks wasn't from some fevered dream -- Barack Obama actually is going to be the next president.

Photo: The set of "Frost/Nixon." Credit: Ralph Nelson /Universal Pictures