Why watch a movie about a disgraced President Richard M. Nixon being interviewed some thirty years ago by a British television personality? What possible relevance does it have for 2009? It has more than you would think, given that we are in the last two weeks of the disgraced Bush Administration. A series of four interviews were broadcast in 1977 between the reclusive Nixon and British TV host David Frost. This was three years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace over his obvious complicity in the illegal Watergate cover up.
At the time, our current vice president, Dick Cheney, was the Chief of Staff to Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford. Many assert that it was Dick Cheney who is the current mastermind behind expanding the authority of the president beyond what most believe are its constitutional limitations. Where did Cheney pick up this idea? Toward the end of the movie, you will see reenacted the famous scene where President Nixon gives the opinion that if the President of the United States says something is legal, then it is. At least Nixon then went on to say that this was probably an opinion not shared by most Americans. His view is clearly shared by Dick Cheney. Arguably, Dick Cheney has spent the last eight years living out Nixon’s vision of the presidency to our own national shame.
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As an ex-president, Nixon was widely reviled and loathed. He needed his Secret Service protection because it was unlikely he would have survived otherwise. Yet, in many ways Nixon’s likely crimes, which were preemptively pardoned by President Ford, seem like a minor kafuffle compared with the actions of President George W. Bush. Had he not been pardoned, Nixon would have been impeached and convicted for the serious crime of obstruction of justice. George W. Bush though gets a pass for deliberately and flagrantly violating our laws on torture and wiretapping.
Back in 1977, when Americans heard the name David Frost, it was invariably “David Who?” Frost was a British TV personality known more for hosting lightweight shows than as a serious interviewer. Michael Sheen portrays Frost as a bit of an airhead and playboy, but also as someone unafraid to take major chances to enhance his career. He was indefatigable when it came to securing the coveted Nixon interviews. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars to land the interviews in the first place, which was during an era when “checkbook journalism” was considered unprofessional and was widely decried.
Frank Langella deftly portrays the disgraced former president. He demonstrates his ability in the first three interviews by dominating them. Frost can hardly get a word in edgewise. At the time, Nixon was obsessed with rehabilitating his image. His interviews with Frost became the means toward that end. He used every deft political skill he had acquired to succeed. Meanwhile, Nixon’s critics were obsessed with trying to get Nixon to admit he conspired to obstruct justice. Perhaps, they hoped, Frost could at least get Nixon to apologize to the nation for his actions.
The pressure is on both Frost and Nixon in the last interview. Nixon has to talk about the topic of Watergate, his least favorite topic, and Frost has to nail Nixon to the wall, which is much like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. At this point, Frost is seriously financially overextended and he is feeling desperate. He has put up much of his personal fortune buying the interviews. He has also undersold the interviews in the broadcast market. He needs a winning final interview to dig himself out. What happened is a matter of historical record, but in case you do not know, I will not spoil it for you here. Suffice to say though that even if you know what is coming, in some ways you will pretend you do not know.
Director Ron Howard does a great job pulling you into the post Watergate world. Nixon was a very private man, so it is hard to know exactly what those years were like. Thanks to Langella’s excellent acting, we have excellent speculation. The scene where a drunk Nixon calls up Frost is likely the invention of screenwriter Peter Morgan but it certainly helps spice up what would be for many a rather dry battle of wits.
Whether you enjoy Frost/Nixon will depend in large part on whether you were around when Nixon was president, as well as any curiosity you may have about our disgraced 37th president. It is a tightly focused film, equally as focused on the multifaceted Frost as our wily 37th president. Of the two, Nixon proves far more interesting.
Like most Americans who remember President Nixon, I grew up to feel ashamed of what he did to our country. After seeing Frost/Nixon I can better appreciate the tragedy of Richard M. Nixon, a Shakespearean character of the 20th century if there ever was one. Like our current president, he largely successfully hid from confronting the magnitude of his own mistakes, to his own diminution. He was not entirely successful in doing so though, thanks in part to David Frost.
3.2 on my four-point scale.