Frost/Nixon is a trivial afterword to a historical footnote, a showbiz story inflated into a retroactive therapy session for one of 20th-century America’s biggest knaves. Dramatizing the 1977 marathon TV interview of the recently disgraced Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) by British comedian-cum-talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), Ron Howard’s self-important adaptation of Peter Morgan’s hit play loads the encounter with boxing metaphors and ladles out the now-familiar litany of the scandalized former president’s neurotic peccadilloes. Nixon’s four-year torching of Indochina and his assault on law and order from the Chief Executive’s chair take a backseat to his Lomanesque inability to “like and be liked,” his paranoid hatred for the press, and fictionalized qualities like self-awareness (“Small talk is not my strong suit,” he grins weakly during a paid address to an orthodontists’ convention). The staging of the videotaped duel, broken up by Frost’s frantic efforts to peddle the broadcast’s sponsorships to dog food and garden tool companies, stints on substance in favor of cutaways to each combatant’s green-room brigade cheering or cursing at the verbal blows.
Both stars reprise their stage roles, and Langella at least has the chewy venality of Tricky Dick to munch on, though except for a bellowing drunken phone call to his adversary before the climactic showdown, it’s mostly jowly bluster and evil-genius comedy; Sheen’s Frost is required to seem preternaturally overwhelmed and unfocused, seducing a babe on a plane and rushing off to a film premiere to the astonishment of his journalistic support staff (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt, overqualified for their two-dimensional roles) before a Rocky-like rising to the occasion for the Watergate segment of the Q&A. But the shows weren’t a confessional “nailing” as Howard and Morgan would have us believe; Nixon’s purported acceptance of responsibility (“I gave [my enemies] a sword, and they twisted it with relish”) was said with a felon’s half-smile, not the tragic mask Langella affects. There’s nothing here to learn about a great American scoundrel beyond the interview’s more infamous quote: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Such criminal hubris could be the core of a no-holds-barred farce (and was, in Dick) that would get closer to the truth than the sanctimony and phony history of Frost/Nixon.