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Movie review: “Frost/Nixon”

I wasn’t alive in 1977 and am admittedly rusty on my U.S. history, so I had never heard of the Frost interviews until this movie came out. (My ignorance, for better or for worse, probably made the movie more enjoyable/suspenseful for me.) Based on the Broadway play of the same title, Frost/Nixon retells the events leading up to Richard Nixon’s long-awaited confession of his involvement in Watergate.

Nixon, three years after resigning from the White House, is holed up in his beachside villa in California. British TV personality David Frost — a 1970’s Ryan Seacrest as it were — is interviewing the Bee Gees, partying, signing autographs, and picking up women on airplanes. Taking note of the 400 million people who watched Nixon’s resignation on TV, Frost is convinced that an interview with the former president will be a sure-fire success, and offers Nixon $600,000 to oblige. Eager to “set the record straight”, and seeing Frost’s apparently low intellectual caliber as the perfect opportunity to regain the public’s trust, Nixon accepts the bid.

So Frost jets off to the States to begin his venture. After failing to convince the American networks to air his interviews, he borrows money from friends to finance the interviews himself. Not to be discouraged, though, he’s compiled a team of talented researchers who are bent on outfoxing Nixon. They’ll provide the facts, Frost will bring the charisma. Despite a few setbacks, things are looking okay for the fast-approaching filming dates.

After months of hype and preparation, the first three of the four interviews are disasters. Nixon knows Frost is an intellectual lightweight, and he dominates the dialogue, countering Frost’s questions with long-winded, sympathy-garnering responses, much to the chagrin of Frost and his team. Frost throws a few curveballs — emotionally-charged Vietnam montages, etc. — but Nixon knocks them all out of the park, even turning the blame on Frost when he breaches contract by asking a Watergate question prematurely. Nixon is a master of mind games and subtly chips away at Frost’s self-confidence — making sly off-camera jabs at his struggle to raise money for the interviews and commenting on his snazzy Italian shoes. (“You don’t find them too affeminate? I guess someone in your field can get away with it.”)

Frost’s frustration grows. He’s having trouble selling ad space for the interviews, his professional career outside the interviews is waning, and his new female companion is starting to see his successful veneer for what it is. His team is worried about how the interviews are going, and whatever constructive criticism they offer is brushed aside by an increasingly agitated Frost.

Frost gets a phone call the night before the final interview from his opponent, who tells him, in essence, that he’s going to open up a can of ex-presidential whoop-ass on him the next day. Realizing maybe for the first time that he and Nixon aren’t involved in an interview but rather a boxing match, Frost decides to step up his game, and spends the whole night cramming in preparation for the final interview.

We all know what happens the next day: Nixon confesses, Frost’s previously under-credited career is catapulted into legitimacy. But the movie has invested so much time exploring the personalities and vulnerabilites of these two men that it’s impossible not to feel the weighty suspense of this final showdown. The means by which Frost gets Nixon to confess is less stirring than the contrition on Nixon’s face as he concedes that what he did amounted to more than “making mistakes.” He broke the law, he dishonored the presidency, he let his country down. And while the disgrace of his actions can’t be overlooked, we (I, at least) can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as he wallows in self-defeat for the world to see.

A highlight of the movie, of course, is the interchange where Nixon abruptly (accidentally?) reveals his true colors of political philosophy:

Frost: Are you really saying the president can do something illegal?

Nixon: I’m saying that when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.

In the bonus material, one producer makes a brief but interesting (perhaps inevitable) comparison of the abuses of power by Nixon with the more recent example(s) of the Bush Administration. If the president believes he is acting in the country’s best interest, should he be permitted to violate laws (including human rights laws) to do so? On one hand, you could argue that desperate times call for desperate measures. (The Patriot Act comes to mind.) But when the integrity and good intentions of the president are legitimately called into question, this argument erodes quickly.

The rest of the DVD bonus material (unlike most such material) is worth watching. They show us clips from the actual interviews, which of course are less emotional than the movie. Real-life Nixon isn’t as easy to sympathize with, and real-life Frost doesn’t seem nearly as charismatic. However, the actual dialogue is evidently portrayed pretty accurately in the film.

It’s harder to tell how much creative liberty was used in portraying the personal dynamics between Frost and Nixon outside the interviews, but in any case, this is a fantastic and captivating movie. Great character development. It’s crazy that Nixon went into that final interview with no intention of confessing, and in a single vulnerable moment, he decided he had to. It’s like for those few minutes, the smoke and mirrors of politics and television were gone, and the whole world got to witness a moment of bare humanity. Even though I know it wasn’t as “Hollywood-ified” in real life, I kind of wish I had been there to see it.

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Filed under: Movies,

2 Responses

  1. msatheeshkumar says:

    Hi Drew, I’m fine. Thanks for asking me. This movie appears to be interesting and a nice one. Let me watch it when I get time. So howz ur life? Sorry to ask…Don’t u feel lonely when u have very few blogging friends?

    • Drew says:

      YES! I’m always trying to get my friends to blog, but I haven’t had much luck yet. They’re not cool like us, you see. 🙂

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