The outcome isn’t half as conflicted as you might imagine, though it’s hard to argue that Howard brings anything new to Morgan’s play. Perhaps his biggest achievement is to preserve the fine performances of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who both starred in the original London theatre production.
What the director of ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Cinderella Man’ does find in Morgan’s typically bold and witty script is an energetic sports movie, with an underdog, Frost, who flounders for three quarters before triumphing in the fourth, along the way indulging in sweaty close-ups, ample pep talks and an extended training period. The assumption is that we know all about Nixon (and, if we don’t, the film isn’t telling), played more endearingly by Langella than by Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic. This means that the pre-match focus is mostly reserved for Sheen’s Frost and his three-man team of two researchers and a producer who act as foils to their boss’s strengths and failings.
It’s not Sheen’s best performance, but he’s likeable nonetheless and his wayward charm, along with Langella’s increasing vulnerability as Nixon, goes some way to carrying the movie. Sheen’s Frost is a very English playboy with one eye on the prize and another on the ladies, allowing for the entry of Rebecca Hall as Frost’s sideshow love interest. She’s underwritten, for sure, but there’s period pleasure to be won from a mid-Atlantic seduction scene during which, like most of the film, there’s much to enjoy but little to learn.