Our responsibility-evading sitting president has put the “duck” back into the term “lame duck,” as much as he has the “lame.” To see him forced to capitulate culpability or, better yet, criminality, is a fantasy that, for many left-leaning politicos, edges on the erotic.

Much of the power, therefore, generated by the new film Frost/Nixon, in which the recently resigned—but never resigned to obsolescence—Richard Nixon is questioned by journalist David Frost, comes by way of a transference. We want Bush, the man but, for now, we’ll take Nixon, in theatrical form, questioned and, finally, cornered into admitting the illegality of Watergate.

Conversely, W worming his way out of admission of any wrongdoing is a thought wholly terrifying. It’s not surprising, then, that a film centered on reenactments of a series of 1977 interviews with Nixon—in which he sought to clear his name and Frost, his adversary, sought the “conviction” forever denied the American people by Gerald Ford—would be not only entertaining but outright nerve-racking. Frost/Nixon derives the sort of tension from two geezers in sofa chairs that is normally reserved for the genre of cinema that explores relationships between psychologically disturbed cutlery-aficionados and showering teens.

Frost/Nixon is directed by Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code), an auteur whose ability to grasp source material, film to film, is as uneven as a male fiddler crab’s ability to grasp a morsel of food, claw to claw. His work, here, is admirable, astute and possesses a keen sense for dramatic conflict. More importantly, the film is written by Peter Morgan, who adapts it from his own hit London play and who seems to have found a niche for himself exploring the latter portions of the 20th century through conflicts between controversial political figures and irresolute yet upright adversaries (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland).

Morgan’s formula might also be a recipe for golden statuettes; in 2006, two of his screenplays produced acting Oscars on the same night: Helen Mirren for her role as Queen Elizabeth II and Forest Whitaker for his career-defining (and, strangely, destroying) portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. In Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella (Starting Out In the Evening) plays Nixon, a part for which he is well-practiced: Langella recently won a Tony for the same role in Morgan’s stage version (though Langella’s 1979 title role in Dracula was probably equally preparatory). Langella’s Nixon, with his wagging jowls, perspiration-beaded upper lip, gravely growl and curled, cretin-like lurch, is splendid to behold, transcends imitation and becomes something as real as the subject himself. Whether Langella can usurp Sean Penn’s lead-horse status for his Oscar-all-over-it portrayal of Harvey Milk, though, is questionable.

Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen) plays David Frost, the talk show host with journalist ambitions (Frost currently has a show on Al-Jazeera English), as a sort of shallow but ambitious playboy, all grin or, in pricklier times, squeamishness. Solid supporting turns are put in by Rebecca Hall (Vicky in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), as Frost’s girlfriend; Kevin Bacon, as Nixon’s Chief of Staff; and Sam Rockwell (Choke), as Frost’s key Watergate investigator.
But beyond award chatter and adrenaline surges, Frost/Nixon provides an important experience of catharsis for its audience. Watergate was, perhaps, the last instance in which the spectacle of American scandal moved in its traditional narrative arc from “revelation to investigation to expiation,” as journalist Mark Danner recently noted, rather than frozen in perpetuity, “unpurged and unresolved.” But we still yearn for justice.

If there is any doubt, one need only look at the fixation on OJ Simpson’s recent conviction, a stand-in for another wanted conviction (also his). But the justice we truly crave is, of course, much larger. Will we ever taste it—and not just some ersatz substitute from another era? Will we?

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan based on his own play
With Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Rebecca Hall

UA DeVargas
122 min., R