Director: Ron Howard
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
The United States, 1974-1977. Following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigns as President of the United States. During this time, the British talk-show host David Frost fronts a rather anodyne Australian television programme. Watching television coverage of Nixon’s resignation, he suggests to John Birt, the producer of his British programme, a series of interviews with Nixon who is now retired in California. Frost negotiates a figure of around $500,000 with Nixon’s agent, although Frost has yet to secure a deal with any American television networks or any advertising. Nixon agrees to the interviews because he thinks that a talk-show host will be less hostile than any of the American news anchors.
The interviews finally proceed, recorded in four two-hour sessions concentrating on different aspects of Nixon’s presidency. The first three interviews are perfectly handled by Nixon, who is able to deflect Frost’s questions and stonewall as much as possible. The evening prior to the Watergate interview, Frost receives a telephone call from Nixon, which is a turning point. Frost then regains the initiative, and Nixon is unable to repel Frost’s more determined and direct questions. Finally, Nixon acknowledges his guilt and provides an apology to the American people.
Adapted by Peter Morgan from his own successful and acclaimed stage play, ‘Frost/Nixon’ is a typically middlebrow drama from Ron Howard and examines one of the most controversial incidents in recent American history, The Watergate Scandal. Written and subsequently filmed through a prism of fact and fiction, ‘Frost/Nixon’ both recreates and imagines the aftermath of Watergate, from the resignation of Nixon, the negotiations between Frost and Nixon to secure four televised interviews, and finally the interviews themselves. As in both ‘The Deal’ and ‘The Queen’, Morgan takes factual events and uses a degree of creative license for dramatic purposes but also for greater insight into these events. How much of ‘Frost/Nixon’ is factually accurate, it might be difficult to tell, but perhaps the most intriguing element of this adaptation is how it draws parallels between its two protagonists, who are far more alike than either might wish to believe.
Both Frost and Nixon need these interviews to revive their careers. Frost is a ratings-obsessed and fiercely ambitious talk-show host whose international success has diminished over the previous decade, whilst Nixon is the fallen former President, seeking a large payout but also rehabilitation in the eyes of the American people. Morgan uses one incident in the film, which one imagines is fictional, to demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between the two men – the telephone call that Nixon makes to Frost the night before the final interview, which focuses on Watergate. In his dossier on Frost, Nixon discovers that they are both from humble origins and both victims of snobbery. Nixon explains to Frost “no matter how high we get, they look down on us” and their shared tragedy is that of demanding the respect of those who look down on them. The other purpose of this telephone conversation is to change the dynamic in the Frost/Nixon relationship, from Nixon’s ascendancy to Frost’s. In this sense, Howard’s film then explores a more conventional and formulaic dramatic conclusion. Frost had previously appeared to us as a playboy who was under-prepared when interviewing Nixon, but now recovers his purpose and drive, becoming determined to bring Nixon to a form of justice. This development seems rather contrived, with the conclusion reduced that of a hero recovering in the nick of time to achieve the cathartic apology that the country needs. Perhaps this is more effective in theatrical rather than cinematic terms.
If the main emphasis of ‘Frost/Nixon’ is to highlight the relationship between its two protagonists and the moment in which Nixon admitted his guilt and contrition over the Watergate scandal, then the theme of television itself should not be overlooked or underestimated. Nixon’s first notorious brush with the television was the famous presidential debate of 1960 with John F. Kennedy, which according to some determined the result of a very tight election. Is it therefore of some surprise that Nixon allowed himself to be involved once more in a medium he was suspicious of, which had previously derailed his political career? Since Frost interviewed Nixon is a series of recorded, rather than live interviews, Morgan is able to make numerous salient points about television – a medium that is open to manipulation, which provides a version of the truth, if not strictly the truth itself. Howard focuses on the scenes off-camera as much as those on-camera, highlighting that television can be an artificial process. Recordings are frequently interrupted, notably after Nixon has replied to each question, so that he can mop the sweat from his top lip, a reference perhaps to the ill-fated presidential debate with Kennedy. Therefore, we do not get a completely seamless and natural interpretation of events and we are offered rumination upon politics as a media-controlled entity.
Although the original stage play includes asides and reflections by various supporting characters, such as James Reston Jr, one of Frost’s researchers, and Jack Brennan, Nixon’s aide-de-camp, their use in a cinematic version of the stage play is rather redundant, given that the film is clearly not bound by the limits of the theatre. These asides merely reiterate and reflect upon what we have witnessed. What is also clear is that some of the supporting parts are either underwritten or unimportant. The role of Caroline Cushing, whom Frost meets on a plane, seems little more than device to confirm that Frost is a jet-setting playboy more interested in his glamorous, show business lifestyle than serious journalism. Perhaps though she is a useful foil for Frost to project his insecurities upon, since superficially at least (and as seen by others), he is cool and composed. Essentially though, the film is a two-header, a confrontation between two evenly matched protagonists with much in common, and Michael Sheen and Frank Langella successfully reprise their stage roles, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of both men, if not quite their look. Morgan’s screenplay effectively examines their relationship and motivations, and Howard competently enough, without surprises. ‘Frost/Nixon’ a solid work of drama, which will no doubt be a contender during the awards season.