Frost/Nixon ***1/2 (out of ****)

Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Patty McCormack, Kate Grant
Rating: R (some language)
Running Time: 122 min
Release Date: 12/5/08

Frost/Nixon would be a wonderful film which I would enthusiastically give my highest rating if it weren’t for one flaw. It contains a deception at its core. That aside it is a very captivating story about Nixon’s first interview after resigning from the Presidency. Director Ron Howard saw Peter Morgan’s stage play by the same name and decided to bring it to the big screen.

It is the story of David Frost’s (Michael Sheen) efforts to rehabilitate his career by scoring an interview with President Nixon (Frank Langella). Nixon, who was living in San Clemente, needed funds to pay for legal expenses having to do with battles over the disposition of the tapes and his Presidential papers. He had just received a large advance on his forth coming memoirs. Frost conceives of an interview with Nixon as his way back to fame and fortune. But, everyone believes he isn’t up to the task to deal with a major player like Nixon. Even John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), his producer, is skeptical. Meanwhile Team Nixon concludes that he would be a soft opponent and for $600,000 why not.

To prepare for the interviews Frost hires Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to do research. Tension soon develops between this team and Frost. They want Frost to interview Nixon aggressively to wring out a confession but Frost, who is used to doing softball interviews of celebrities, is reluctant. Meanwhile Nixon’s team of Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and Diane Sawyer (Kate Grant) plot to limit discussion of Watergate to the final interview.

As the interviews finally get underway, it appears that Frost is totally outclassed by Nixon who turns every question into a chance to tell the story of his many accomplishment such as the opening to China, the strategic arms negotiations, and the his efforts to conclude the Vietnam War. Frost is distracted by his failure to get network backing for project and his affair with Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall). His research team continually pushes Frost to get tough to little avail.

Before the final interview that would focus on Watergate, a drunken Nixon calls Frost and engages in a bizarre discussion in which he both identifies with Frost and tells him that only one of them can be the winner. Nixon insists that he will be the winner. Whether this real happened or it is just a fictional device to make the story more compelling I don’t know. It is similar to a real event in which Nixon left the White House to speak with anti-war protesters after the Kent State incident.

I have two issues with the otherwise excellent portrayal of Nixon by Frank Langella. First, there is an over emphasis on the “awkwardness” which was clearly real but not where near the level this or other Hollywood efforts. Anthony Hopkins did a better job in Oliver Stones’ Nixon on that aspect. But, most importantly the big payoff scene that I mentioned above never happened and the specific sentence “If the president does it then it’s not illegal” was taken out of context. It was in reference to the general issue of presidential powers in wartime and not even directly about Watergate. Here is a link to the original statement.

In reality the Frost interviews were not a defeat for Nixon but rather the beginning of his rehabilitation as a senior statesman. He went on to publish his memoirs and several other books on foreign policy. He was an unofficial advisor to the Reagan and Bush (41) Administrations. This was hardly a defeat. It also was the beginning of a big come back for David Frost as well. But, for these flaws Frost/Nixon still is a worthwhile film and certainly brings back some memories for those who liver through that period.

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