Ron Howard directing a Peter Morgan script should be a home run. Morgan revels in the talky machinations of power brokering--see: The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, the BBC's The Deal--and Howard is at his best when dramatizing the behind-the-scenes wonk work of events' public faces, whether it be fight promotion (Cinderella Man), reality television production (EDtv), or his finest hour, the orchestration of engineering problem solving in Apollo 13. Morgan adapted his own taut Frost/Nixon play for the screen, and this story about the research preparation and buildup to the 1977 series of interviews between British television host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Nixon should be the sort of background glimpse that floats right through Howard's wheelhouse. The problem is that Howard forgets that the meat of his story isn't the men and women behind the cameras. These interviews are inescapably about the two men at the center of the spectacle.
Howard even admits as such, framing his movie on the idea that Frost (Michael Sheen) recognized the power of the television medium. Just how he does this is never quite clear, as Frost overextends his own personal finances to secure these interviews with Nixon, paying him $600,000 for the opportunity. Helping Frost prepare is a research team of writer John Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and television journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), depicted as hard newsmen initially skeptical of Frost's abilities and his commitment to taking the interviews as seriously as he should. Throughout, Frost spends little time prepping and more time searching for advertisers, trying to drum up network interest in the interviews, and even throwing a lavish birthday party for himself.
Zelnick and Reston have reason to worry, too, as the first few days of interviews features Nixon (a masterful Frank Langella, who wisely doesn't try to parrot Nixon's jowly mannerisms, instead opting for subtle body language control to flesh out a vulnerable human being from the most satirized American politician of the modern era) beats the living crap out of Frost, making him look like he's out of his league. This movie maintains the play's boxing match pacing and, fortunately, two powerhouse performances power it. In one corner, Langella's Nixon is the veteran heavyweight capable of psychologically controlling the fight before the first bell rings. In the other, Sheen's Frost is the flamboyant bantamweight better known for his actions outside the ring of hard-hitting journalism. Frost/Nixon depicts both fighters as needing to emerge from these interviews victorious in order to preserve an ideal version of his legacy. And while Frost/Nixon tries to build up an artificial tension out of this grafted-on pugilism, it eventually settles into a familiar yarn about David slaying Goliath.