A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #7


2008, R, 122 mins.

Richard Nixon: Frank Langella / David Frost: Michael Sheen / Bob Zelnick: Oliver Platt / James Reston: Sam Rockwell / Jack Brennan: Kevin Bacon / Caroline Cushing: Rebecca Hall / Swifty Lazar: Toby Jones / John Birt: Matthew Macfadyen / Pat Nixon: Patty McCormack

Directed by Ron Howard / Written by Peter Morgan, based on his play.

“I let them down.  I let down my friends, I let down my country, and worst of all I let down our system of government...And I'm gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”

- Richard Nixon



One thing dawned on me while watching the compulsively fascinating docudrama FROST/NIXON: The film rises far above shoddy and manipulative political melodrama for the way it takes one of the most vilified and disrespected political figures of the last 35-plus years and humanizes him, so much so that we come out of the film not so much hating the man for his actions, but rather feeling deep pity for him.  


The tragedy of 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, was that he made incalculably wrong choices and used them to validate even further inexcusable actions. Yet, in the end he realized the error of his ways and – in front of a TV audience of 45 million people that wanted an admission of guilt – he confessed his political sins that left American deeply distrustful of its government.  A man that was once seen as the embodiment of everything that was loathsomely unethical and untruthful in politics was now seen as a humble and shockingly exposed public figure that realized that maybe the best way to mend the wounds he opened was to come to grips with them.  In some ways, Nixon was noble enough to allow for some much needed healing for both himself and a public that hated him. 

FROST/NIXON may take place in the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal of the early 1970’s, but the film becomes something very relevant and topical today, especially considering our current political climate.  Seeing a teary-eyed and emotionally broken down Nixon confess his deep regret about his past Presidential indiscretions, it led me to harken back to President Bush’s recent press conferences upon leaving office, where there appeared not one instance on his part to admit any level of personal blame for his highly divisive policies over the last 8 years.   If anything, Nixon and Bush Jr. are a compelling point of comparison: Both are slighted figures that served the highest office in the land that made serious errors in judgment while in office, not to mention that both committed themselves to wars that many in American never felt were worth participating in.  But, just look at the candor and sincerity that Nixon publicly dealt with his scandalous action as President and then re-watch Bush’s final press conference; the latter was so smugly deviant and self-righteous to the very end defending his policies…he certainly could have learned a lesson in humility from Nixon. 

It’s important that FROST/NIXON does not present the former President as a cold-hearted and cruel villain.  By presenting him almost as a classic figure worthy of Shakespeare, the film attains a level of a deeply resonating redemptive drama.  Nixon was certainly not one of the most popular Presidents: the camera hated him (as was on display in the infamous 1960 presidential debate to JFK, which he won on words, but not in terms of looks, charisma, and charm), and his dubious actions in Vietnam and ultimately Watergate all but eroded his credibility.  Truthfully, FROST/NIXON shows the man as more than a bit pompous, arrogant, and manipulative, to be sure, but the film almost indirectly reminds us of what a smart, cunning, intelligent, and amiable man he was capable of being.  Not only that, but it also reminds us that Nixon was a President of accomplishments:  His landmark foreign policies cannot be denied (he opened up a dialogue with China and initiated détente with the Soviet Union) and initiated economic polices that were modestly successful.  And, yes, Vietnam was a dreadful turn for him, but he did inherit the war from JFK and LBJ, which arguably no President could have adequately handled. 

FROST/NIXON,  alas, is not a biopic.  Instead, it becomes something more compelling and thought-provoking.  Based on the original play by Peter Morgan that was presented both on London and Broadway, the film deals mostly with the verbal cat ‘n mouse games (or, more appropriately, pugilistic battle of words) that Nixon engaged in during a very much publicized series of interviews with David Frost, an English satirist and TV host at the time, who was on self-imposed exile in Australia as a low rent TV host and interviewer.  At face value, the thought of a film largely involving talking heads in interview form seems dull and lifeless, but FROST/NIXON presents them almost metaphorically as down and dirty boxing matches between the mismatched pair, with Frost – a media figure that was not respected at all as a serious journalist at the time – being considered no intellectual match for "Tricky Dick."  

The most intriguing area of the film is how it focuses on the strategies of both parties involved behind the scenes.  These were not just interviews, but small-scale wars between two parties that were out to out-class the other.  Frost, putting most of his own money and reputation on the line, wanted to transform himself away as a fluff media man and into a respected and shrewd journalist that – with his producers and advisor’s aid – wanted to give Nixon the trial he never had.  If he failed, he would have been a bankrupted nobody.  If he succeeded, then Nixon’s admission of guilt would be the vindication that American had so desperately wanted.  And for Nixon himself…well… he appeared driven partially by a desire to amend, but maybe even more based on a yearning to relate to the underdog that was Frost.  Nixon always considered himself the lynchpin for the media, so when presented with a man like Frost that was equally disrespected, it’s hard not to believe that he had sympathy and understanding for the man.   

The film – written by Morgan himself (based on his play), who also wrote one of the best films of 2006 in THE QUEEN – revels in the recreation (part fact, part fabrication) of four of the taped interviews that were broadcast in the spring of 1977.  What’s equally gripping is the build-up to this David and Goliath confrontation.   After we see a series of news reports and real life footage of Nixon’s (Frank Langella) actions with bugging members of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Complex (then followed by reports of impeachment proceedings), the film flash forwards a few years after his 1974 resignation of the Presidency where David Frost (Michael Sheen) learns of the numbers of people that viewed Nixon’s resignation speech.  Lightning then strikes: Why not do a daring expose and interview on the man on a series of four subjects: domestic policy, foreign policy, Nixon the man, and Watergate?   His long-time friend and producer, John Burt (Matthew MacFadyen) thinks he’s nuts.  After all, Frost, at the time, was delegated to doing shows that were considered anything but newsworthy (imagine if a “reporter” from Entertainment Tonight wanted to do a serious interview of a fallen President and you get the idea).  Yet, Frost is driven to get some much-needed respect, and his passion for the project seems limitless.   

However, getting Nixon comes at a price, both personal and financial.  Nixon at first seems disinterested in participating, but then seems coxed by his agent Swifty Lazar (Tony Keith) and post-presidential chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) that it would be a chance for him to engage in a public image makeover…not to mention making some serious dough.  Ultimately, through a series of deals, Frost managed to lure Nixon in with $600,000, a third of it coming up front for just signing the contract to appear.   The initial signing comes at La Casa Pacifica, Nixon’s residence, which he graciously gives Frost and company a tour of when they arrive stateside.  This initial meeting shows just how wet behind the ears Frost – and how seriously out of his element - he was and Nixon, like a preying animal, knew this.  The way the President uses cordial language, an easygoing demeanor, and an elitist personality makes him feel even more of an intimidating figure.   Most certainly, Frost had his work cut out for him. 

He does get assistance from two investigators, Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to dig as much information on the disgraced President as possible.  For Reston himself, the whole series of interviews takes the form of vindictive revenge: he wants to put the President on record and force an admission of guilt out of him.  The first interview is built up with a chair-gripping level of low key suspense:  Frost and Nixon exchange pleasantries before the taping begins, but Nixon is a real trickster for getting Frost immediately off his game with a series of sly, off-camera remarks (“Do any fornicating last night?”).  During this first two-hour interview, Frost is shown as a man that has no clue how to reign in the verbose, sometimes long-winded and off topic, and self-congratulatory Nixon.  He had planned on-the-spot questions, but Nixon - under intense advisement from Jack Brennan – is able to turn the tables on these first interviews and transform them into long speeches that manage to recuperate his image.   

This, of course, angers Frost’s partners, but he takes it all in stride, promising that the next set of interviews will be better.  Well, they aren't.  The more they go on the more Nixon appears to be successfully exonerating himself.  Even worse is the fact that advertising dollars that Frost has hoped to secure to fund the project is failing, leaving him to most likely pick up the immense check.  Downtrodden, on the ropes, and fearing that his status as a media has-been is appearing more likely by the minute, Frost decides that drastic actions are need to secure an about face and take the interview series away from Nixon.  This culminates in the film’s most chilling and memorable moment (fabricated, but intense nonetheless), where Nixon – four days before the last interview on Watergate – calls Frost at his hotel room in the middle of the night, during which he begins a brilliant monologue where the very intoxicated President bemoans both his and Frost’s underdog status with the media and suggests that both share a bond of having higher class people bringing them down to a demoralized level.  He closes the one-sided phone conversation with a stunningly frank admission: this last interview will make or break their respective careers, so it is up to the two lowly figures to come at each other “with everything they got” for once last stab at glory.   

Of course, no need for a spoiler warning here folks, because Frost – with a serious amount of bravado, nerve, and balls – daringly took Nixon on during the last interview and amazingly allowed for Nixon to reveal his hidden pains and regrets over Watergate.  What's really transfixing here is the notion of mutual respect between these two foes: Nixon has grown to respect the notion that Frost is a marginalize public figure akin to him and Frost underrates Nixon’s verbal prowess with controlling a room.  Frost’s innate naiveté and inexperience makes way for raw determination, which ultimately outmatched the crafty Nixon in the end.   

In one of the film’s masterful moves, the two actors that originally performed as Frost and Nixon in the play were recalled, them being Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, the latter giving what has to be the towering performance of his long career.  Langella – much like Anthony Hopkins, who played the president in NIXON – certainly does not look very much like Nixon, nor does he precisely sound much like him either.  But mimicry is not the point here: Langella does something trickier and more defined by instead trying to encapsulate the man’s essence, so much so that – by the time of the final interview – you never once see an actor miming a historical figure.  What’s so cunning about Langella’s work here is how he finds Nixon as an eclectic figure and not just a one-note villain: he captures his sometimes easy going manner, forced charm, inner sadness, deep paranoia, and ultimately his fidgety impatience with wanting to control everything around him.  It’s Langella’s infusion of pathos and frailty in the character than makes Richard Nixon move beyond that of a caricature: he becomes a flesh and blood human being, rife with foibles, qualms, and insecurities. 

But let’s not forget the great Michael Sheen, who is absolutely necessary to this film to make Langella’s performance work.  The actor was the rock solid anchor playing Prime Minister Tony Blair in THE QUEEN and although he plays a similar part in FROST/NIXON (that of a man that is placed in a very intimidating situation with a very famous political figure), Sheen has to play a much less secure and powerful public persona in Frost.  He rightfully plays up to Frost’s affable wit and charm, but also to his abundant naiveté and doubts.  If he fails with his interviews, then his career is over.  Frost was no doubt a man under indescribable pressure, and Sheen does a terrific job of finding the right balance between playing a cocky and lighthearted media man and that of a someone who knows that all the smooth and debonair confidence in the world will help win against a nearly insurmountable opponent. 

Even better is the man behind the camera: FROST/NIXON was directed by Ron Howard, which is certainly his most accomplished, involving, modestly executed, and fully and articulately developed film of his career.  Howard has largely been seen as a safe and somewhat pedestrian filmmaker, one that knows how to make consummate popcorn entertainments better than just about anyone (his CINDERELLA MAN, one of his last efforts, is proof positive).  No matter how much craft and skill he has levied in his films, I have never gained a respect for Howard as a filmmaker that took calculated risks or gambles, but FROST/NIXON is a prime and wonderfully indicative example.  He abandons all large-scale movie magic and technological computer wizardry and instead directs with a sparse, loose, and in-the-moment level of naturalness.  More than anything, he knows that he has to let his directorial style take a back seat to let the performances and story shine, which is one of FROST/NIXON’s strongest accomplishments.  Beyond the incredibly nuanced and refined acting by the two leads, not to mention the tension and suspense that develops when the two go head to head, Howard’s film is also delicate in the way it reminds us that Nixon was a man that ended his political career with dreadful choices, but rehabilitated it in the public eye when he exposed that he knew and understood that what he did was wrong.

That's something we never experienced – nor ever likely will – with the last man that just left office.

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