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Ambitious Journalist Faces Off with Notorious Ex-President in 'Frost/Nixon'

A significant moment in recent American political history has gone from the headlines to the theater stage and now the big screen in a new film directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard entitled Frost/Nixon.

In 1977 David Frost was a popular television personality in Australia and Britain looking for a way to break in to the American market. Three years earlier, a break-in of another sort that sparked the scandal known as 'Watergate,' had brought down the 37th President of the United States.

A restless Richard Nixon wanted back into the public arena. His aides believed the series of telecast interviews with Frost, whom they considered a lightweight, could revive the career of the man who resigned under a cloud of suspicion.

So the interviews went ahead for almost 29 hours recorded over the course of 12 days. Like dueling fencers, they thrust and parried with questions and answers about international relations, domestic politics and, ultimately, the scandal.

The play "Frost/Nixon," written by British dramatist Peter Morgan, premiered in 2006 and went on to success in London's West End and on New York's Broadway. The entire stage run featured Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon; and the two actors reprise their roles for the film version. Langella jokingly calls theatrical run a year-long audition for the movie, but adds that this was not a character he could easily shed.

"He's a very affecting person to play," explains Langella. "Usually characters leave me relatively quickly, but Nixon stayed with me a lot. The depth of this man's pain and of his desire for greatness is what came to mean more than anything else. In that sense he was always around in my head …always …and he still is. I don't live my life consumed by him, but the particular things that drove Nixon are in all of us and he just happened to have more of it than anybody else. I think that's why we are so fascinated by him and why he makes people cringe. He makes people think 'oh, I have those qualities, but I try to hide them.' He couldn't."

The interviews showed that Nixon had underestimated Frost's ability to draw out details. Michael Sheen says the film version gave him a new way to explore that aspect of the character.

"One of the things that I found harder to do on stage was to get that 'underneath' story that is going on for Frost," Sheen explains. "On the surface he seems very relaxed and laid back …nothing is a problem and everything is fine and quite superficial, maybe, and a bit empty in some ways …and yet there is this other story going on underneath all the time. [It is like] the Swan above the water seems fine and serene, but underneath the legs are going and going. So to be able to get that across, in some ways, was a lot easier on film because the camera is there picking up what's going on behind the eyes and you get a bit more sense of what's going on underneath. That was really liberating for me."

Director Ron Howard compares Frost/Nixon with his earlier film, Apollo 13, explaining that in both cases audiences may already know the ending at the very beginning because of the true history. He says creating a sense of suspense in this story depended upon the characters of two interview adversaries.

"You always want the audience to feel they understand something about the character: empathy, if not sympathy," Howard explains. "I wasn't looking for sympathy for either of these characters, in fact; and what I like about the writing is that it explores the grayer areas of the event and both of these figures were - and are - real paradoxes in a lot of ways. It really mined that for humor, emotion and drama as well as offering insight into the events.

Frost/Nixon also features Kevin Bacon as presidential aide Jack Brennan. Sam Rockwell plays journalist and historical researcher James Reston Jr.; and Rebecca Hall is Frost's companion, Caroline Cushing. Peter Morgan adapted his stage play for the film version, which features a soundtrack by prolific Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer.