Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, in 'Frost/Nixon'

Dir. Ron Howard
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

There’s truth and there’s fiction, objective quantities, but then there’s the interview, where anything can be made to mean anything else, depending on who is asking the questions and who is giving the answers. Those are the stakes of Frost/Nixon, a fascinating film about verbal combat and the clash of two outsize personalities; the Richard Nixon legacy, at the time still engulfed by the fallout of Watergate, could have been recorded by the history books as that of a common crook or a misunderstood hero, depending on how he performed.

At the time of the Watergate scandal, David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a grinning television personality and a playboy, happily hosting talk shows in England and Australia in-between industry parties and skirt-chasing. He watches footage of Nixon leaving the White House, but he’s always thinking in terms of television; his first impulse is to ask for the ratings.

He brings his idea to producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), describing the “big fish” interview with a schoolboy smile on his face. He is not a man of political conviction, only personal ambition. Nixon is a world leader, a disgraced one at that, and the biggest news story of the decade; getting access to him would be a coup, and that may be more important to Frost than actually talking to him. Only gradually does he come to understand the gravity of the assignment, beginning with a meeting with author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who explains that an unwitting exoneration of Nixon would be worse than no interview at all.

Nixon is obviously the more storied figure, but the screenplay — by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), based on his stage play — is equally interested in Frost, if not more. He is a more complex man than we first expect; his outward presentation is frivolous, and thus the news media and even his colleagues write him off as a buffoon, but he’s savvier than he appears, tougher, more determined.

What makes him compelling is the contrast between his persona and his personality. He never lets you see him sweat, even if you’re on the same team, and he projects success at all costs. This is confused for laziness and complacency by his research team, as in the scene where he invites them to a celebration after Nixon has made mincemeat of him. As played in a very effective performance by Sheen, Frost is always smiling on the outside, but we can tell when it’s genuine and when he’s saving face. To conduct a successful interview is important to him, but even more vital is not to be seen as a failure — he’s fighting for his pride and his livelihood.

Nixon is doing the same. Humiliated by the Watergate scandal, he wants to rehabilitate his image and perhaps reenter politics, and he hopes to use the inexperienced Frost as a stepping stone. He is played by Frank Langella, who won a Tony Award for the stage version and will rightly receive an Oscar nomination for the film. Beyond his convincing replication of Nixon’s voice and mannerisms, Langella channels pride and a deep, bitter anger for the enemies of his past and present, demonstrated most powerfully during a drunken phone call in which he delivers a tirade about those who claimed he would never succeed.

The film feels diffuse in the early going, perhaps too much so; often the supporting characters directly address the camera to provide analysis, like talking heads in a documentary, and the effect is self-conscious and distracting. The film improves the more closely it focuses on its main characters. Director Ron Howard does an excellent job during the last and most important interview, discussing Watergate. He cuts away the cameras, the crew, and the backstage quarterbacks from both camps. Intense closeups keep the characters on the hook, especially Nixon, whose artifice can be seen crumbling as he walks into questions he has no way out of.

That’s the power of television, explains Reston in one of the talking-head segments. It betrayed Nixon during his debate with Kennedy, and it betrays him with Frost. He can talk circles around anyone, but when the camera catches his face, etched with fatigue and defeat, it gives him away. It doesn’t lie.