Frost/Nixon Proves to Be a Historical Curio
- Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2008 5 Dec
DVD Release Date: April 21, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: December 5, 2008 (limited)
Rating: R (for some language)
Run Time: 122 min
Director: Ron Howard
Actors: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
A fascinating moment in history comes to vivid life in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play. Starring Frank Langella (Starting Out in the Evening) in the role of Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in the Morgan-penned The Queen) as interviewer David Frost, the film stands out as a retelling of a landmark TV interview, but the story’s relevance will depend on viewers’ willingness to connect Nixon to George W. Bush. Those who don’t see a clear connection will be left with a well-acted drama—nothing to sneeze at, but nothing particularly revelatory either.
Nixon had been out of office for three years when he agreed to an interview with British TV personality David Frost. Never a friend of the press, Nixon would need them to carry out a campaign of rehabilitating his reputation.
He also wanted money. Working with his agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), he fields an offer of $600,000 for a series of interviews with Frost, whom Lazar and Nixon Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) see as an easy interviewer—someone who will “pitch softballs all night.”
Frost faces skepticism about the prospect of landing an interview with Nixon, but when the money offered for the interview proves irresistible to the former president, Frost finds himself pushed and prodded to use the interview to extract an admission of guilt from Nixon. James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), an expert on the abuse of presidential power, insists that the interview will be the trial Nixon never had. Embittered over President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, Reston insists to Frost that “the American people want a conviction, plain and simple.”
Also assisting Frost are radio correspondent Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). But it’s Frost who knows the medium of television best among the group. But if Frost was counting on his understanding of television to give him an advantage, he had underestimated his adversary. Nixon well remembered the lessons of his loss in the presidential election of 1960 to John F. Kennedy, after televised debates hurt Nixon’s image (and helped Kennedy’s). Nixon also realized that he’d be entering a combat zone of sorts. “The limelight can only shine on one of us,” he tells Frost before their final interview.
Brennan, a believer that the “hippies and dilettantes” had “gotten rid” of Nixon, protects Nixon at all costs. “Give long answers. Control the space,” he advises the disgraced president.
As the attempt to get Nixon to acknowledge his errors falters, the pressure on Frost mounts—not only to his reputation, but also to his pocketbook. American networks aren’t interested in paying the unprecedented sum Frost demands for a straight news interview, forcing Frost to shoulder the project’s financing while he continues to search for a broadcast outlet for the interview.
The increasing desperation of Frost’s team behind the scenes is palpable, so it’s unfortunate that viewers are given little reason to care about Frost’s professional and personal lives. His female companion (Rebecca Hall) is peripheral to the story, and Frost’s career as an interviewer will be irrelevant to most viewers. He’s most interesting as a tool that can pry the lock off of Nixon’s tightly controlled persona, but it’s Langella’s Nixon who looms largest in the battle royal. That Frost is ultimately the victor is less interesting for what it says about Frost than what it says about Nixon.
Perhaps the imbalance in personalities—a complex, corrupt president versus a lightweight TV interviewer—would have put anyone who played Frost at a disadvantage in this drama. Of course, the underdog aspect of Frost taking on Nixon is part of what makes the story intriguing, but it also makes for an unbalanced drama. We enjoy the suave Nixon, as portrayed superbly by Langella, even when he’s filibustering in response to Frost’s questions. On the other hand, watching Frost and his team squirm gets old. We sense that a payoff is coming, and when it does, it delivers. But the film’s denouement, indicating that Frost landed on the cover of two newsweeklies after the interview, feels oddly irrelevant. A reminder from Reston that Nixon’s most lasting legacy is that the suffix “gate” now gets attached to any presidential scandal is an oversimplification of the impact of Nixon’s presidency.
The filmmakers behind Frost/Nixon are promoting the film by trying to tie the abuse of Richard Nixon to events that occurred under the George W. Bush administration. In a time when the current president has received blame for anything and everything, such a strategy may prove wise in generating interest in the film, even if the parallels between Nixon and Bush can be disputed. Viewers can decided the merits of such an argument, but even those who disagree with the attempt to connect the two presidents will be able to appreciate Frost/Nixon as a fine drama that’s worth watching and pondering as a historical artifact.
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- Smoking/Drinking: Smoking and drinking; Nixon makes a drunken phone call to Frost.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; foul language; racial epithets.
- Sex/Nudity: When Frost and a woman are awakened in bed, the woman quickly gets out of bed, but nothing is shown; Frost flirts with a woman on an airplane, and is later shown walking down a small staircase from a location above the plane’s main level; joke about someone “having a go” at Nixon’s dog; Nixon asks Frost if he “did any fornicating”; men ogle some Playboy bunnies; a man strips and runs into the ocean, and his backside is shown.
- Violence: War images show dead people and animals.
- Spirituality: Frost is encouraged to frame his questions “as a Quaker”—a reference to Nixon’s faith tradition; Chuck Colson, who became born again years before the interview, is referred to as Nixon’s “darkest henchman”; Nixon says he and Henry Kissinger weren’t “particularly orthodox” in their faith traditions; Frost is said to have a Methodist background.