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Frost/Nixon (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 3, 2023




Starring Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Andy Milder, Kate Jennings Grant, Gabriel Jarret, Jim Meskimen, Geoffrey Blake, Clint Howard and Patty McCormack.

Screenplay by Peter Morgan.

Directed by Ron Howard.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  122 minutes.  Rated R.

The lessons that the US learned during the Nixon years – and then apparently promptly forgot – have a particular poignancy as George W. Bush impotently runs out the clock on his eight years in office.  When you forget the past you are doomed to a repeat, therefore watching director Ron Howard’s recreation of the aftermath of the Watergate-fueled fall of a former President is even more shocking for all the foreshadowing and similarity to the current office holder’s career.

Not to say that Frost/Nixon is a partisan political lynching.  In fact, as portrayed by a spectacular Frank Langella, the 37th President is shown to be a complicated, flawed, but basically extremely competent politician and a man who realizes that he was at least partially responsible for his own downfall.  It would be much to easy to portray the man as a monster, and to their credit, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who based the film on his hit play of the same name) and director Ron Howard do not fall into this trap.  The movie does not necessarily treat Nixon with kid gloves, but it does allow the man his humanity, his triumphs and his dignity.  It also allows him just a bit of catharsis.

Instead, Frost/Nixon is a fascinating historical piece, looking at the aftermath of one of the greatest political scandals of American politics.  Richard Nixon’s fall has been chronicled on film several times before – in the Watergate investigative drama All the President’s Men (which actually came out about a year before this film’s 1977 setting), in Oliver Stone’s flawed-but-intriguing biopic Nixon and even as a goofball black comedy in Dick.

Frost/Nixon is one of the better cinematic looks at this turbulent time (frankly, only All the President’s Men deserves to be in the same company).  Oddly enough, this may be because neither of these films are purely looks at the political process and implications, both look at it through the prism of journalism – newspaper reporting in President’s Men and television and show business in Frost/Nixon.

Because David Frost – the man who was finally able to get Nixon to publicly admit wrongdoing in the Watergate controversy – for all his accomplishments and skills, could never exactly be considered a journalist.  Even the members of his own team derisively referred to him as a “talk-show host.”  Frost had made a name chatting up the BeeGees and Gina Lollobrigida; how could this bon vivant extract a confession from a man who had just a few years before been the most powerful person in the world?  In fairness, though, it should be noted that even in 1977 (the time of the story) Frost was not quite the overmatched puffball interviewer that this film portrays him to be.  In fact he was considered a rather hardnosed interviewer when need be, just not one who was known for political stories.

However, Frost’s position as a playboy dilettante trying for a journalistic achievement outside of his range – even if it is not necessarily historically accurate – works well as a dramatic setting for this mano a mano.  Langella’s performance as Nixon, for all of its craft and texture, was probably not exactly accurate to the man either, investing the former President with a fatalism and lack of humor that is not also said to be legitimate to Nixon’s personality.  (In honesty, Langella’s sad-sack game-player is pretty close to how I remember Nixon, but I was a child when all this happened, so I’ll defer to people who have more vivid memories of the man.)

The story itself is relatively simple.  At that point, Frost was a popular talk-show host in England and Australia, however his attempt to translate that popularity to the US market had pretty much crashed and burned with the failure of his US show.  Looking for an interesting story to resurrect his stateside career, he made an offer to disgraced former President Nixon soon after his resignation.

There was no response until a few years later, when Nixon’s Hollywood agent, seeing an opportunity to polish the politician’s reputation with an interview which may very well be a puff piece, calls to say that Nixon will do the interview – for a cost of $600,000.

Frost tries to get investors and network interest, but eventually ends up financing much of it himself, borrowing so much money that if this interview is not a success, he will be ruined.  He puts together his staff to help with setup and questions, while the former President’s handlers go into damage control, planning the ways that Nixon can look best in the interview.

In early going, the wily politician runs rings around his perhaps overmatched quarry, causing Frost to dig deep to find the craft to extract a confession from the former President.

It is relatively well-known how this all played out, but the movie tells the story with verve, intelligence and some stunning displays of acting.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 25, 2008.

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