Year of release: 2008
Starring: Frank Langela, Michael Sheen, Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt
Director: Ron Howard
Viewing: Netflix DVD
Frost/Nixon is an engaging film about the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and David Frost’s subsequent interview with the disgraced ex-president, Richard Nixon, three years later. The film features strong performances and is surprisingly compelling, considering that it is basically the story of an eight-hour talk show.
Nixon agrees to the interview — actually a series of four interviews — because he expects Frost to be a lightweight whom he can intellectually bully, taking control of the discussion and resurrecting his reputation. Also, he is offered $600,000 and Nixon, as portrayed here, is a man with a great deal of affection for a dollar.
Frost is a showman and he believes this will be the interview of the decade. But the point is, he is a talk show host, not a newsman. Newspeople and advertisers alike are as skeptical as Nixon and his handlers about Frost’s ability to turn these interviews into anything more than a propaganda platform for Nixon. This is where the film gets its tension.
The first two-hour interview goes exactly as Nixon hopes. He deflects any questions, answering them with his own, self-serving monologues. During the next two, Frost is a bit more aggressive in his questioning, but Nixon deftly deflects these questions as well. As the fourth and final interview looms ahead — the one that will focus specifically on Watergate — Frost’s camp realizes they have one last opportunity to turn the interview into something newsworthy as well as something sellable to advertisers.
Frost had brought on board two journalists to help him prepare for his showdown with Tricky Dick. From the start James Reston, Jr. and Bob Zelnick worry that associating themselves with the interviews will hurt their own reputations among their peers, but both see the opportunity to create history as well. Reston, especially, is a tireless and passionate reporter, and it is his research which ultimately provides the facts with which Frost is able to trap Nixon during the final interview, forcing Nixon to acknowledge his wrong doing and leading to the famous quote, “I’m saying that when the president does it, it is not illegal.”
Frank Langella received a best actor nomination for his portrayal of Nixon. He evokes the president without actually mimicking or caricaturing him. His Nixon is a sympathetic and nuanced character, a flawed man with many unusual quirks. While you don’t trust him, you kind of like him, which would probably not be the case with the real Nixon.
David Frost had a lot riding on these interviews, though at first he does not appear to understand this. But as the expenses rise, and the sponsors fail to materialize, we see that Frost is risking his own career, as well as a great deal of his own money. As portrayed by Michael Sheen, Frost comes across as the least substantial of the main actors in this drama. That is not a criticism of Sheen or Frost, because these are substantial people we’re talking about: an ex-president and two crusading journalists. Frost is really just a TV personality.
Frost/Nixon takes place over 30 years ago, but the themes are very relevant today. This is the story of the how the most powerful man in the world abused that power, and how it fell to the media to provide the public with some measure of closure, because the political system failed to do so. But times have certainly changed. Even with ample evidence suggesting that the Bush administration broke the law multiple times, the media (taken as a whole) has been urging that the Obama administration NOT launch investigations of this conduct.
It makes me wonder if the Watergate scandal would have even been reported at all had it occurred during the past eight years. A media that cares little about illegal torture and eavesdropping on American citizens, would hardly even notice something as small as the cover-up of a break in. And, the press has simply relinquished their role as truth police. David Gregory, the new host of Meet the Press, doesn’t believe the press’s role is to investigate the government’s claims, but just to ask questions and dutifully report the responses. Gregory:
I think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job. I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role.
The reason David Frost was able to break Nixon was because of the investigative efforts of the journalists on his staff, who uncovered facts that contradicted Nixon’s claims. Frost didn’t call Nixon a liar, he demonstrated it. Sadly, I can’t imagine David Gregory, were he in Frost’s shoes, having the gumption to do that — although he never would have been in the position to, because no one would have actually investigated those claims.
And there you have it. David Gregory, who has the keys to the most influential political talk show on TV, does not even live up to the standards set by David Frost — the Oprah Winfrey of his day.