A review of the film FROST/NIXON by Stacy Dymalski
Political dramas are dramatic because they usually involve things like argumentative council meetings, CIA boogey men, elaborate disguises or big battle scenes. But the best political drama to come out this year consists of two men simply talking to each other. Ron Howard’s new film FROST/NIXON is the most compelling, edge-of-your-seat storytelling to hit the big screen since CITIZEN CANE.
For those of you too young to remember, President Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9th, 1974, after being caught in the web of Watergate, where political thugs broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. At the time, no one was quite sure of their motive, but after an intensive two-year FBI investigation, all roads led back to Nixon as the person who authorized not just one, but many break-ins, as wells as other abuses of power such as burglaries, illegal wiretaps, harassing tax audits, campaign fraud, a secret slush fund, and blatant threats against people Nixon feared. To avoid prosecution, Nixon resigned so that Vice President Gerald Ford could take over as president and grant Nixon a full pardon, which is exactly what happened.
At the time, the American people felt betrayed by a president who abused his power. All they wanted was an admission of guilt and possibly an apology. It was already apparent that he’d never serve a day of jail time for his crimes, but come on, is eating a little crow too much to ask?
Well, that crow was eventually served up by a lightweight British talk show host named David Frost (played by Michael Sheen). Currently in exile in Australia after his U.S. talk show rose to popularity, then tanked, Frost was looking for anything that could bring him back to the upper echelon of New York social life and his beloved table at Sardi’s. Unfortunately, no one thought he had the chops to get Nixon (played by Frank Langella) to say anything other than the rhetoric he’d already spouted, so none would financially back him. After all three TV networks turned him down (this was before cable, so those were his only media options) Frost decided to air his Nixon interviews direct to syndication and pay Nixon himself to the tune of $600,000, which in those days was a real chunk of money.
One might ask why would Nixon even consent to an interview, given how much he had to lose? According to the film, the answer is twofold; first and foremost, he needed the money. His legal bills to keep him out of prison stacked up and the sum Frost offered him helped put a big dent in that. Second, the movie leads us to believe that deep down Nixon knew he was wrong, and he wanted to confess in some way in order to get on with his life. Choosing David Frost as his confessionary seemed safe, given that Nixon thought he was a trivial party boy who was unfamiliar with American politics.
That might have been true had Frost not surrounded himself with a team of Washington insiders eager to get Nixon on record. Reporter Bob Zelnick (played by Oliver Platt) and researcher Jim Reston (played by Sam Rockwell) had been chasing Nixon for three years, trying to get the disgraced president to admit wrongdoing.
These two, along with Frost’s producer, pumped Frost full of information. However, the dandy Brit was more interested in securing financing (which didn’t come) than he was in doing his homework. His lack of experience showed in the first six hours of his eight-hour interviews, where Nixon burned up valuable screen time by telling useless homespun homilies and explaining away his brutal invasion of Cambodia as if it were a life-or-death threat to American homeland security. (Sound familiar? I guess history does repeat itself.)
Anyway, the turning point comes when on the weekend before Frost’s final taping, a drunken Nixon calls Frost and gloats over the fact that he’s winning. Highly competitive, Nixon looks at these interviews as a game, and Frost as an easy opponent. Frost takes this as a sign that he has to kick it into gear, especially given that their final topic is Watergate. He crams all weekend like a Harvard freshman.
This turns the final half hour of this film into a compelling thriller. Even though we know the outcome, I held my breath as Frost got closer to getting the confession the nation craved. It plays out like a chess game between an experienced criminal mastermind and a young idealist, where after watching everything that led up to this moment, you can’t believe that the idealist may actually win.
Even though I think the writing in this film is great, it’s the performances that leave you spellbound. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon don’t try to imitate their characters, but rather they personify them, meaning they portray them as individuals who happed to have the same traits as Frost and Nixon.
Other standout performances include Sam Rockwell as Jim Reston, the tenacious little terrier of a researcher who refuses to rest until Nixon is held accountable, and Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s steadfast advisor and friend who never waivers in his loyalty to Nixon. In the most poignant scene in the movie, Brennan stops the interview when it looks like Nixon is about to confess. They have a private heart-to-heart about personal accountability where Nixon realizes he’s in checkmate, but he’s okay with it because it’s a burden relieved. The pain and sympathy in Bacon’s eyes when he knows this great man is about to be disgraced again is almost too much to bear.
As you can see, I loved the movie. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate it and you won’t walk away feeling lectured. It’s simply the events that led up to the only trial Richard Nixon ever received for Watergate. And in this time of bankrupt banks, failing auto companies, and multiple O.J. trials, I have admit I got more satisfaction out of watching this movie than I get out of watching the news.