Monday, January 26, 2009


I've read a lot of criticisms of the Ron Howard directed Frost/Nixon. Most of them come from the "Nixon was Teh Aw3s0m3" crowd who think that the acknowledged, proven crimes of Richard Nixon were simply procedural and political disagreements akin to the differing views that some may have over subjects like government vouchers for private school. Others come from sticklers for history who actually believe that movies are a good way to accurately tell true stories when, in fact, you'd get a more accurate telling from random drunks on the streets. Movies are about art and entertainment and, in this case, trying to use a myth to tell the truth. Yes, that sounds strange, but that's also the art of movie making.

Frost/Nixon takes what's basically a historical footnote, Richard Nixon's first major interview after he resigned from the Presidency, and puts it front and center. The movie opens by showing the two characters, British talk show host David Frost and Richard Nixon, a guy you may have heard your parents mention from time to time, either spitting when they say his name or trying to defend him by saying, "Um, you know, he wasn't all that bad." Frost is portrayed as a man trying to revive a career that's just starting to sag and sees Nixon's resignation as an opportunity. Figuring that Nixon's first interview would equal huge ratings, he sets for himself the goal of convincing the ex-President to speak with him on camera before doing so with anyone else. He achieves this goal by doing something that the major television networks were unwilling to do, that being to, basically, fill a moving van up with money and dump it all on Nixon's front lawn, something that couldn't be done back then due to the fact that, in the 70s, journalists had something called "Ethics". Yeah, I know, I laughed too.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is written and portrayed here as a somewhat vacuous celebrity who didn't comprehend the gravity of what he wanted to do or what sort of an opponent he was taking on. Nixon (Frank Langella in an Oscar caliber performance) saw this as a way to make some money while simultaneously rebuilding his reputation. He saw Frost as a lightweight who wouldn't give him the trouble that the journalistic big hitters of the time like Walter Cronkite or Mike Wallace would and perhaps assuming that the Frost's hardest hitting question would be, "Are you comfortable, Mr. President?"

Things start going badly for Frost before taping of the interviews even begins when he can't find any interest among the geniuses who ran American television networks back then in broadcasting his historic interview and, as a result of that, he begins losing the sponsors needed to pay the interview's rapidly rising price tag. He's also getting criticism from pretty much everyone, including members of his own staff. One of those people is James Reston (Sam Rockwell), a fiercely anti-Nixon journalist who wants Frost to become more serious and treat this interview as the trial that Nixon never had.

Nixon and his people, including his super-loyal and tough talking Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), enter the interview with the high confidence that you might have if you were a man who has spent his entire life at the forefront of politics and, even though the scandal that would bring him down was already brewing, managed to win a landslide re-election going up against a guy whose biggest career accomplishment was asking the Bee Gees if they found their tight pants to be too binding. At the very start of the interview, Nixon's confidence is vindicated. Frost decided to get clever and ask Nixon why he hadn't simply burned the famous Watergate tapes. Any trial lawyer, by the way, will tell you that it's not a good idea to ask a witness a question that starts with the word, "Why." A "Why" question gives a witness a very wide latitude and lets them add in favorable interpretation and that's exactly what Nixon did when asked Frost's "Why" question. Nixon pretty much walks all over Frost throughout the interview which pulls Frost and his team into ever deeper levels of despair and Nixon closer to his goal of redemption in the eyes of the American people.

Frost managed to pull it out, of course. The characters throughout the movie are asked a series of documentary-style questions about the events before and during the interviews, a device that works better than I thought it would. It's been my observation over the years that any movie that needs to be explained by a narrator is almost always a bad movie but this is the exception that proves that rule and definitely won't be mentioned the next time I say, "Narrators always suck. ALWAYS!" Anyway, one of the best of these segments is near the end when James Reston comments on the power of television and how, for the second time in his career, Nixon was damaged by a television appearance (the first time being his famous 1960 debate with John F. Kennedy). Reston rightly points out that the only part of the interviews that people will remember is when Frost broke Nixon. Up until then, to put it in boxing terms, Nixon was winning on points until Frost scored his knockout punch.

Frost/Nixon contains dramatized scenes, shows events that took months to actually happen occurring in a few minutes and even contains a fictional phone call between Nixon and Frost that's used as a dramatic device to set up a turning point in the story. I've read plenty of reviews and articles who've never made a movie in their lives yet feel they can give Ron Howard advice like, "Why didn't Opie (huh huh) just present the facts as they happened? That would have been a fascinating film." Professional filmmaker Ron Howard, the director of Splash, Apollo 13, and A Beautiful Mind disagreed with that opinion and instead did what he should have done, make what he felt was the best movie he could make. In the end, what can politely be called the movie's dramatic license doesn't alter the movie's ultimate truths, that Nixon not only failed in his goal to rehabilitate himself but that he admitted that he had let the American people down. If you don't like that, show Opie Cunningham how smart you are and go make a movie that tells the true story of how Frost and his team calmly sat around doing research while eating corned beef. It should be fascinating.

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