“Frost/Nixon” began life as a powerful, thought-provoking play about a historic battle of wills between a lightweight journalist and disgraced former president. Fortunately, it’s also a pretty good movie.

Most of the film is setup, which irks a little, but context matters, so the first 45 minutes or so is spent on setting up the scene. David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a journalist struggling for credibility and comes up with the idea of a series of interviews with Pres. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), who left the office of the president after the Watergate scandal.

Frost brings in his producer buddy and a couple of Nixon haters as researchers to the project while he wines and dines networks and advertisers to pay for the thing. As much as I wanted to jump to the sparing early, these early scenes are vital to the character of Frost; he’s all smiles but never fake, he takes insults as well as compliments and never lets anyone see him sweat.

In short, Nixon’s opposite, which is never more evident than in the film’s warm-up matches; Nixon is grouchy, bitchy and generally unpleasant to be around. He’s a man who never learned social graces and spent his life trying to catch up with those around him.

The film really takes off when the interviews start and Frost begins crumbling under Nixon’s gaze; Nixon knew how to take control of a situation and how to keep it (to his detriment, he proved earlier). Frost is out punched, and out matched, until after a late night call from the man himself (fictional, and at least this viewer felt, totally  unnecessary), Frost steps up the questioning and forces the former president to own up to his wrongdoing. And Nixon just takes it.

What I liked best about “Frost/Nixon” is that it doesn’t show Nixon as some mustache twirling, power mad supervillian. Yes, he had those leanings, but in the end, he was just a man, for better or worse. Watching the guy fall apart in the interview is a sucker-punch of sad, and I didn’t get any joy out of it, but he’s in a hell of his own making. I sympathized with him (thanks to Langella no doubt), but I felt no pity.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t perfect; I really wanted more Frost/Nixon sparring and less talking-head background. Aside from one unfortunate instance of talky-talk (all telling when the showing did all the work toward the end of the film), the narration/flashback format works. And from what I understand, most of the dialogue is from “real life,” which gives the film an extra punch all on its own.

But the real power of the story lies in the two lead performers. Langella’s Nixon is a broken man trying desperately to recapture his legacy from the vultures. Sheen’s Frost is a man on the outskirts of fame trying to do the same. And in the end, only one wins their bout.

“Frost/Nixon” (2008)

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Peter Morgan

Starring: Frank Langella (Pres. Nixon)

Michael Sheen (David Frost)