On Broadway, Peter Morgan's "Frost/Nixon" made for a deliciously smart and dramatic mano a mano between the disgraced former president and the slick, jet-setting British TV interviewer David Frost, whose career, and his personal fortune, depended on his getting an on-air confession about Watergate. The surprising news is that "Frost/Nixon" works even better on screen. Director Ron Howard and Morgan, adapting his own play, have both opened up the tale and, with the power of close-ups, made this duel of wits even more intimate and suspenseful. Howard's giddily entertaining, sharply observant movie plays like a thriller. "I shall be your fiercest adversary," Nixon (Frank Langella) warns Frost (Michael Sheen) before the taping of their first session. "I shall come after you with everything I've got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us." Nixon, the cunning old fox, is playing mind games with his interviewer, but his words proved truer than he imagined. Frost and his team are out for blood. The aim, as the muckraking writer James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) puts it, is "to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had."
Langella and Sheen originated these roles on stage, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing them. Sheen, who was Tony Blair in Morgan's "The Queen," dazzles as the debonair media high-wire artist holding on for dear life when the slippery Nixon ducks all his early-round punches. More presidential than the real president, Langella gives Nixon a stature and poignancy that the man himself rarely displayed: it's a towering, witty performance that reaches its peak in the drunken late-night phone call he makes to Frost, sizing him up as a man, like himself, with a fiercely competitive chip on his shoulder. The scene is Morgan's invention, but it's an illuminating, inspired fiction. Not everything in "Frost/Nixon" happened in real life, but both sides would probably agree it should have.