As with The Queen, screenwriter Peter Morgan once again pits a Michael Sheen underdog against a titanic adversary in Frost/Nixon, Sheen in this case embodying playboy cream puff British talk-show host David Frost, and his nemesis being Tricky Dick (Frank Langella), whom Frost famously interviewed over several months in 1977. Adapting his own play, Morgan posits this showdown as David vs. Goliath, and the two as similar figurative boxers fighting for credibility, respect, and a return to the limelight, a dynamic clearly established by the numerous characters who bluntly articulate these very points. In terms of condescending narrative handholding, Frost/Nixon has no 2008 rival, as Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction maniacally avoid anything like subtext or visual storytelling, their tale’s every argument made painfully plain by dialogue – much of it coming from framing-device, faux-documentary hindsight interviews with the main players – that demonstrates a devotion to telling rather than showing. This modus operandi is so zealously applied that one soon feels borderline insulted by the general lack of respect for audience intelligence, a feeling that culminates during the momentous close-up of Nixon immediately after he admits to having made presidential mistakes and let down the American public.
It’s a moment that finds Langella silently expressing layered emotions, only to then be immediately followed by anti-Nixon author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) overtly describing said emotions in detail before Howard cuts back to Nixon’s countenance just so we can again see what Rockwell just told us we should. Langella’s performance is bone-deep and compelling but the film’s conception of the disgraced commander-in-chief only amounts to a sketchy variation of that proffered by Nixon, and its depiction of Frost stresses his superficiality not because it’s necessarily accurate but because it better serves the little guy-big guy conflict. Even given the plot’s talky, static nature, Howard awkwardly aims for bigness via self-conscious zooms, camera pans, and narrative beats better suited for one of his tentpole efforts. The gracelessness of his direction, however, is in keeping with Frost/Nixon’s simplistic obviousness, which goes hand-in-hand with its ill-defined point-of-view, a fact most strikingly epitomized by a final close-up that strains for the emotional complexity of the Frost interviews’ climax but – aside from granting Nixon great empathy – merely highlights how little of note Howard and Morgan have to say about their subject.