As a director, Ron Howard is wholly in thrall of his scripts. A good story, with good characters, and an appealing structure? That gives us Apollo 13. None of those things? Helloooooo, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! And a whole mess of movies in between of all sorts of varying quality levels, although I feel mostly safe in arguing that generally he finds himself a touch below the middle of the bell curve slightly more often than a touch above it. Though let's be frank: the films of Ron Howard really define the middle of the bell curve, don't they?

Anyway, my point is that Frost/Nixon is Howard's best film since Apollo 13, by a fairly comfortable margin, and that is really just a way of saying, "Peter Morgan is a better writer than Akiva Goldsman, whose Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind is one of the great Oscar travesties of the '00s". And I will happily invite anyone who argues with either clause of that sentence to a fistfight. Still, we weren't talking about that but about Morgan's adaptation of his nifty 2006 play about the famous series of interviews in 1977 between former president and all-around dickhole Richard Nixon and British chat-show host David Frost; the 28 hours filmed during 12 days of interviews would later be cut into four 90-minute segments, the most famous of which was the Watergate episode, in which Frost tried to coerce Nixon into apologising to the American people for his role in the scandal that destroyed our country's faith in honest government for 34 years and counting, while also making the single statement that best describes the quintessential core of Nixonian politics: "Well, when the President does it, that means it is not illegal" (a line that appears in the play and film, slightly misquoted - the movie fudges a lot, actually).

Morgan's play - and hence his screenplay, which if I recall the play correctly (I've read it, but never seen it performed), is identical in all but a couple specifics - focuses on Frost, played on stage and screen by the greatly underappreciated Michael Sheen (whose last appearance in a Morgan screenplay was as Tony Blair in The Queen), following along as the Barnum-like showman realises, while watching as Nixon (Frank Langella, also a veteran of the stage version) resigns his office and heads to California to burn off his final years in shame, that the now ex-president would make the biggest "get" in TV interview history. Thus does he launch on a years-long hunt to find the gargantuan sum of money he needs to secure Nixon - $600,000 (plus points, but the movie ignores that), the largest amount ever paid to an interview subject at that time - and to finance the actual filming.

My knowledge of the history behind all of this doesn't extend remotely far enough to know how much of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that makes up the first half of the film is true, based on truth, or bald-faced horseshit, but it makes for a great political procedural flick that doesn't quite hit the threshold where it would earn the heftier title of "political thriller". Much is made of the contrast between the playboy showman Frost, and his American research assistants James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt); they are out for the closure that the American people lost when Nixon resigned and was pardoned - without having been convicted or even indicted, remember - in the first week of Gerald Ford's sad little slip of a presidency. Frost just wants to make a name for himself in the lucrative American television market. On the other side of things, of course, Nixon himself is hoping to restore his image in the eyes of the American people and give one last "fuck you" to the phantom elitists that he railed against his whole life, and blamed for pretty much every bad thing that happened to him.

It is a fairly awe-inspiring scenario, all right, and played by one of the strongest casts of 2008 (also present: Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon and Toby Jones, the last of these sporting a remarkable and borderline surreal "surly Jewish agent" accent). Langella and Sheen have had a lot of time to perfect their performances, and dammit if it doesn't show: though neither man looks or sounds exactly like their real-life counterpart, each of them has a near-perfect handle their character as a character, which is unarguably the more important goal in general for the actor playing a real person, and exceptionally true in the case of Richard Nixon, who already seems to have been a literary character more than an actual human being who actually sat in the Oval Office and actually did some of the worst things any President ever has (and yet, was more of a liberal in some ways than any of the six men who have succeeded him. Go fig). Langella's Nixon is one of the greatest performances of that oft-played man that we've ever had, a sweaty bully, calculating mind-fucker, and terrified old man who is well aware that the good he wanted to do in life has been ruined by one fatal mistake. It is not a performance that makes Nixon into a particularly sympathetic figure, but it does underline his humanity: it was a human being, not some Greek monster, who did these things that Nixon did and suffered in the wilderness as Nixon suffered.

So far, nothing I've said would be untrue if Frost/Nixon were nothing but a filmed version of the stage play, and it's more than that. There are some massages to the source material that flat-out don't work, by which I'm primarily referring to the distracting "documentary" element of the film in which all the characters other than the titular figures reminisce from the perspective of what seems like at least a few years, and give us some context for what's happening (at least, I don't think this happened in the play, but I wouldn't swear on a stack of Cahiers du cinéma), and distract us terribly. There are certainly movies in which dropping talking heads into the middle of a plot can work - Woody Allen has written at least two of them. But just because something can work does not mean it must work, and Frost/Nixon suffers badly not just because these inserts put the brakes on the action, every single damn time they crop up, but also because they generally inform us only of things we'd already have seen from the rest of the film. Actually, the tendency to say things that are obvious is a somewhat persistent flaw in the screenplay, owing no doubt to its theatrical roots. "Show, don't tell" is probably the cornerstone of all great filmmaking, and either Morgan or Howard - both, probably - have lost sight of that. Of course, it's easy to argue that Howard never had a very great handle on showing, not telling, anywhere in his career, but why get into that here?

*Sigh*...begin with Howard, end with Howard, I suppose. He's just not that interesting a director, and at this point I think it's smartest to assume that he never will be. Oh, he's competent as all hell (though not invariably: Grinch along with The Da Vinci Code and EdTV all lurk menacingly in the dark waters of his CV), and the one thing that you don't get to say is that Frost/Nixon looks like a stage play. Even in the lengthy stretches where there's a lot of talking and little action, the camera movement and editing keep the film popping along urgently. Admittedly, there are a few tricks Howard plays around with, and well - the use of far more close-ups than we're used to in American films, for sure, and during the interview itself he comes up with some clever means to keep both Frost and Nixon in the shot. But it's ultimately a bland exercise: a fine entertainment for a winter night that plays it completely safe and provides virtually nothing except for its two fine central performances that curling up with a copy of the play in front of a crackling fireplace wouldn't do just as well. And - unless your local movie theater is completely full of awesome - it doesn't even have the fireplace!