In Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen each play men aching for redemption. Langella's Richard Nixon longs to rehabilitate his public image after the long national nightmare of Watergate and a tidal wave of bad press and public derision. Sheen's David Frost, in turn, wants to prove to a snickering world that he's more than just a blow-dried entertainer, at home chatting with starlets and celebrities, but woefully out of his league conducting a makeshift prosecution of a former president of prodigious intellectual gifts and ferocious intensity. Ron Howard directed the film, but its auteur is undoubtedly playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Deal, The Last King Of Scotland), who continues his ongoing exploration of the 20th century as filtered through crucial interpersonal relationships.
Frost/Nixon dramatizes a legendary series of interviews between Langella's disgraced former president and Sheen's globetrotting international playboy, who wears his megawatt smile like armor. Langella agrees to the interviews both as a way of picking up easy money and as a means of finally conquering his old foe the television, that infernal beast that helped cost him the 1960 election. Langella sees the interviews as conversational blood sport, a verbal sparring match between himself and a glass-jawed lightweight of a foe, but he underestimates his opponent and pays a steep price for his arrogance. The film consequently has the emotional arc of a sports movie, with the overmatched underdog enduring a vicious beating before staging a stunning comeback.
Howard hammers home the boxing metaphor a little too hard; he doesn't always trust the power of Morgan's words and the mesmerizing performances of his perfectly cast leads. Yet Frost/Nixon finds an intriguing new angle on one of history's most documented and fascinating figures. In a masterful performance, Langella highlights Nixon's oily charm and guile; there's a reason an ugly, unpleasant man with a hangdog face, gravelly voice, perpetual 5 o'clock shadow, and sad eyes rose from nothing to become the most powerful man in the world. This is Nixon at his debate-club-president best, though he can only refrain from self-sabotage for so long. Sheen's Frost may like to think he landed the knockout blow, but in the end, only Nixon can defeat Nixon.