Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
Director: Ron Howard
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Running Time: 122 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Universal Pictures
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In 1977, just a few years removed from the only resignation by a U.S. President in the history of our country, Richard Nixon agreed to be interviewed by a moderately successful British TV personality, David Frost. Over the course of 28 hours of interviews Nixon eventually apologized for the scandals of his administration. Not before or since has Nixon publicly addressed the issues surrounding Watergate.
Take a second to let that sink in. It’s only been 30 years since the interviews but the way we get our news today has changed so drastically that a news event like this would be impossible to achieve in today’s news environment. The advent of the internet and the 24-hour cable news channel has completely changed the way we get our news. But in 1977, when network anchors ruled the news on the Big Three, a foreign journalist against the odds scored what is still today considered the most important political interview ever.
Frost/Nixon was adapted from the 2007 Broadway play of same name that focused on the interviews and the preparation leading up to them. The outcome of the interviews is what made them as successful as they have become, but any time you have a movie based on actual events, the conclusion ends up being irrelevant. Since that element is removed as the dramatic driving force, the filmmakers had to rely on good old fashion storytelling and performances to push the film.
The meat of the story is obviously the interviews themselves, but equally as interesting is everything that happens that leads up to the climax. It wasn’t a simple matter of asking for and conducting an interview. The whole production was the brainchild of David Frost (Michael Sheen), conceived on a whim without full knowledge of what he was up against. It was a ratings stunt, nothing more. His offer is $500,000, besting the offer from CBS. He is talked into a larger price. As he begins to realize the process it became apparent that financially, he was in over his head. He was going to be in for everything he had and without investors and ad revenue, there was a chance the interviews would never take place and he would be bankrupt in the process. At the same time, the realization starts to set in that more than ratings, he has the opportunity to give Nixon (Frank Langella) “the trail he never had” since Gerald Ford gave him full pardon after he entered office. Nixon, convinced by his handlers that Frost was intellectually inferior, intended to use the interviews to get his name back into the political arena. Well, that and money. Even in retirement Nixon was shown to be driven by greed. So much so that, in an unprecedented move then and an unthinkable one today, Nixon agreed to appear on camera without pre-interview preparation or knowledge beforehand of the questions. All he knew were the general topics to be covered and in what time frame.
The interviews provided the drama of a couple of gladiators trading swings of the sword. Much the same way the best parts of The Silence of the Lambs were watching the interaction between Clarice and Dr. Lector, we get to see two competing ends of the spectrum try to outwit each other in a game of cat and mouse. While Frost attempted to swing for the fence with his opening question: “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”, Nixon’s charismatic defense of anything that had any bite to it proved the approach ineffective. The confident smugness of Nixon, the way he baited Frost, almost playfully, like he wanted Frost to come after him, made you root against him. The way he attempted to convince Frost that the word “corrupt” didn’t mean what he thought it meant, so long as his heart and intentions were pure reminded us of another slippery President that tried to mince words and create his own definitions in the last fifteen years. All of it made you want Frost to bury him if he could, but when the moment came where he began to candidly discuss admissions regarding Watergate, I can’t say that you feel too sorry for him, but he isn’t completely demonized either. For that you can credit Langella’s soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance and the writing by Peter Morgan. And the fact that Ron Howard made on of the best movies he ever has.
For as good as the direction, writing, and performances are, I still maintain that the most fascinating part of the movie is the fact that for as recently as the events occurred, the same thing would never happen today. For one, there is less mystery with today’s politicians. Everybody knows about everything they want to know and if someone IS hiding something it takes about ten seconds for it to be all over the fifteen news channels and hundreds of websites. But, perhaps because of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, there is no way you would ever be able to get an interviewee to agree to the terms Nixon agreed to: no advance knowledge of the questions, sole control over content, etc. No, those days, if they were ever here under normal circumstances, are long gone. Everybody is too interested in making themselves look as good as possible in the public eye to put themselves out there like that. And too many other people have too much to lose or gain to give that amount of control to one person. There’s a word for that, I can’t quite remem–
Oh yeah: politics.
And there’s the rub.
**** out of ****