Frost/Nixon puts Tricky Dick in the hot seat

Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon resembles a reunion film of The Queen, or at least it should. Frost/Nixon shares screenwriter Peter Morgan, who penned the 2006 Oscar-winning film about Princess Diana's death as a political tipping point in England. Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen (and in Morgan's predecessor film The Deal) here plays David Frost, a television personality best known today for his interviews with Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate.

Based on his stage play, Morgan's script for Frost/Nixon offers a similar perspective on power and the public sphere as The Queen. Morgan argues that incidents that seem like minor footnotes in fact prove to be historical turning points. Howard's steadiness as a director makes a clever and compelling film of Frost/Nixon that's everything a "West Wing" fan would want in a contemporary political drama. Unlike The Queen, however, the film feels more like a tempest in a teapot than one of the hinges of history.

Howard approaches the material almost like he's helming a sequel to the famed newspaper drama All the President's Men. The film opens with a montage about the Watergate Hotel break-in, the subsequent scandals, cover-ups and resignations, building to Nixon's withdrawal from office. Frank Langella reprises his stage role as Nixon, and while his harrumphing delivery echoes many Nixon impressions, he gives the disgraced president the gravitas and dignity of a lion in winter.

In England, Frost watches Nixon's farewell to the White House and perceives the ex-president as the "get" interviewee of the century. Super-agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) brokers a deal in which Frost pays Nixon more than half a million dollars out of his own pocket, with the hopes that he can raise the money from the networks. He ultimately hits up Weedeater and Alpo Dog Food to fund the project, so the interviews place his professional reputation and livelihood at stake. Sheen gives Frost the easy, ever-present grin of an operator more interested in the limelight than journalistic ideals.

With little subtlety, the characters discuss the interviews as both a duel and a boxing match, and Howard's direction takes its cues from them. Nixon's corner features his protective chief of staff (Kevin Bacon) and even a young Diane Sawyer as an aide. Meanwhile, as Frost begs for money and gads about at slick parties, investigators Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and historian James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) try to keep him focused on targeting the ex-president. Reston in particular wants to give Nixon the public trial he never had.

The four long interview sessions unfold like rounds in the boxing match, with each man amusingly trying to throw the other off balance. But Howard, faced with the challenge of eliciting drama from Nixon's long-winded, self-aggrandizing answers, proves more interested in the build-up to the conversations than their substance. And since the film focuses more on the power of celebrity and public opinion, audiences likely won't remember the details about slush funds and other Watergate misdeeds that were on America's mind in 1977.

Frost and Nixon both essentially play to posterity, with Nixon trying to rehabilitate his legacy and Frost trying to re-establish his career. For all the back-room arguments and high-powered negotiations, the stakes never feel as high as Reston's character suggests. Langella, ironically, understands star power better than the famously awkward Nixon ever did and gives the film its most powerful moments. A few times Langella lets slip Nixon's mask of statesmanship and reveals the petty, venomous personality beneath, but by the end he offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a crushed and regretful Nixon.

After three decades and numerous Nixonian dramas (including Robert Altman's Secret Honor and Oliver Stone's Nixon), Frost/Nixon lacks urgency while telling audiences little we didn't already know. The Queen, however, came out barely 10 years after Princess Diana's death, and offered a revelatory portrait of a political figurehead unwilling or unable to adjust to changing times. It may be that Frost/Nixon will be most appreciated by viewers too young to remember the era of the Watergate scandals, and who'll welcome a chance to kick Nixon around a little more.