One of the year's most riveting performances, unobtrusive able direction and an uncommonly smart screenplay combine to make "Frost/Nixon" a must-see among the crop of wannabe blockbusters competing for your entertainment dollar.

The movie tells the behind-the-scenes story of how British TV personality David Frost scored an unprecedented interview with disgraced ex-president Richard Nixon in 1977. It's an interesting slice of modern history, slightly fictionalized for easier consumption — but what sets it apart from many similar exercises is its emphasis on the fascinating personalities involved.

Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen," makes Frost an unconventional hero. Though he'd once been known as the brains behind the early '60s groundbreaking political satire "That Was the Week That Was," by the mid-'70s Frost was seen primarily as a jet-setting, lightweight talk-show host. To audiences and critics of the time, his decision to conduct the ultimate interview with the elusive Nixon seemed as likely as Paris Hilton masterminding a hard-hitting interrogation of Osama bin Laden today.

For much of the film, Sheen plays Frost with a blithe superficiality that borders on the maddening. Though he's assembled a team of liberal researchers who are bent on exacting some acknowledgment of criminal wrongdoing from the Watergate president, Frost is clearly outmatched when the camera rolls.

As good as Sheen is, it's in the scenes featuring veteran actor Frank Langella as Nixon when the movie kicks into high gear. Distilling decades of stage and screen experience into the performance, Langella imbues the role with an intimidating presence that practically leaps from the screen. Whether he's channeling the historical Nixon's social awkwardness or his legendary wiliness, Langella dominates every moment.

Howard's end

Once the interviews begin, Nixon quickly gains the upper hand and refuses to allow Frost to pin him down. Though we spend a lot of time backstage hearing how Frost's reputation (and personal fortune) is at risk, the real suspense lies in the interview scenes. The film makes it clear that there's more at stake here than a simple televised debate; what these mismatched chess players are battling for is custody of the truth.

For all the unexpected drama of the interview segments, though, the film's dramatic high point is a late-night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost. As Langella delivers a breathtakingly bravura performance, we watch Sheen's Frost slowly realize what it's going to take to penetrate that icy facade.

Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan have constructed a free-flowing narrative that bounces easily back and forth between the Frost and Nixon camps, with occasional commentary from members of the supporting cast in faux interview segments. With the talent and material at his disposal, Howard wisely avoids flashy or arty effects and refrains from rubbing our noses in his reconstruction of the period. It's an admirably transparent piece of craftsmanship that keeps the narrative moving without calling attention to itself.

Working with Morgan's adaptation of his own stage play, the entire cast rises to the occasion. Kevin Bacon is a standout among the supporting players, with an impassioned Sam Rockwell running a close second.

But the film's success ultimately depends on the byplay between Sheen and Langella, and they're more than up to the task. Langella, in fact, may have just delivered a performance for the ages — and how often do those come along?


FROST/NIXON

Stars:

Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam RockwellTheaters:

PromenadeRunning time:

2 hours, 2 minutesRated:

R (some language)Quality:

***(on a scale of zero to four stars)SUBHEAD: Langella by a landslide: His Nixon freezes out solid Frost