Frost/Nixon is a semi-fictional account of an event of little historical importance: the 1977 televised interviews of Richard Nixon conducted by David Frost, a British talk-show host. As far as I know, the interviews didn’t reveal any facts that were not already known. Nixon did make a sort of half-hearted apology for his part in the Watergate scandal, but I doubt anyone today really cares whether he apologized or not.
The movie succeeds however as a compelling psychological drama, a sort of duel between two driven, flawed men.
Frank Langella dominates the film with his portrayal of Richard Nixon as a smart, wily and ruthless man whose confident demeanor barely conceals a boiling cauldron of resentment and feelings of inferiority. This is an introverted, socially awkward man who has struggled all his life to fit in and be liked, but whose efforts at cordiality and humor still tend to make people wince. The fact that a man with such handicaps could ever have become President is evidence of his talent and determination. Now disgraced and exiled to his villa in San Clemente, he is still surrounded by a small group of loyal followers who assure him that he was unfairly treated.
David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a young, handsome, glib and charming man with an eye for the ladies. A successful talk show host in England and Australia, he has made a career of pitching softball questions to celebrities. Yet he also feels himself to be in exile. His American talk show was canceled and he longs to return to American show business, which he regards as the big time.
So Frost pays Nixon $600,000 (a huge sum for that time) to appear in series of television interviews. Because no network will touch the project, Frost ends up putting up most of the money himself, taking the responsibility to line up sponsors and sell it to television stations.
Aside from the money, Nixon is looking for a chance to present his side of the story and rebuild his reputation. He assumes that with a lightweight interviewer like Frost he will be able to dominate the interviews and make his case both to the American people and future historians.
But Frost knows that no one will want to watch a Nixon puff-piece. If he is to salvage his career and avoid financial ruin he will have to remake himself into a tough, prosecutorial interviewer who can hold Nixon’s feet to the fire, and symbolically hold him accountable for what he has done. Yet Nixon is an old hand at this sort of thing and Frost finds himself severely outmatched. As the interviews proceed, his upbeat facade becomes increasingly shaky.