About half way through the Frost/Nixon, Nixon aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) compares David Frost (Michael Sheen) to a boxer who trained for months to face off against the champion—in this case former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella)—and found that all that training was for naught, that he was hopelessly outmatched.
History would prove different, but this line of dialogue confirms what structure the film is trying to follow. Based on the historic 1977 set of interviews between the two men, Frost/Nixon is akin to a classic boxing movie. You have two former champions with one last chance at retaining their former glory. And the only way either can succeed is if the other one loses.
David Frost is a television presenter who once had some success in the U.S. Now, he is in exile in Australia, interviewing pop stars and hosting what passed for reality TV back in those days. He longs for a return to America, the place where being a star has real meaning.
Also longing for a return is Richard Nixon. Fresh from his shameful resignation as President of the United States, he is speaking at dinners for a quick buck when he’s not living out his forced retirement in his California home. He believes that he can one day return to his once held political glory, if only America can forget about his disgraceful behavior during Watergate.
The two men see each other as an opportunity. Frost understands the world’s fascination with the scandal surrounding the Nixon White House, and sees the interviews as a way to regain his status as an international star. However, he knows that he can only achieve that goal if he can get some sort of an apology out of Nixon.
To Nixon, Frost is a host known for lobbing softball questions at the likes of the Bee Gees and Yvonne Goolagong. If the former President can dominate the interview, he can change the way the American public views him, and he might just be able to return to Washington just a little bit sooner. Of course, if this does happen, Frost’s credibility as a journalist would be ruined and his career would pretty much be over.
The movie essentially becomes a title fight between the two, battling each other for the upper hand, guided by the people in their corners in between interview segments on how they did and what they need to do. This makes the film exciting. Since the interviews are a part of history, we know how it all will end. But director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (who wrote the play the film was based on) keep us interested in seeing exactly how they will get there.
Michael Sheen and Frank Langella also carry over from the original version, having played the same roles in both the West End and Broadway incarnations of the play. Langella has gotten the most acclaim for his role as Nixon, and rightfully so. He keeps his portrayal from slipping into a common impersonation, and gives the character sympathy and humanity, even when Nixon is acting at his worst. But credit must also be given to Sheen, who plays the ambitious Frost with a balance of out and out desperation and stiff-upper-lip British reserve. Together, they make a great combination.
The original interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon are part of the public record, and those that remember the conversations already know the ending of the film. But the rest movie shows how fascinating the fight was that brought us to that end.