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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Frost/Nixon – the story of one the most compelling interviews ever conducted

Ron Howard’s critically-acclaimed Frost/Nixon, based on the play of the same name by British screenwriter Peter Morgan, dramatises a series of interviews of former President Richard Nixon, conducted by David Frost in 1977. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who starred as David Frost and Richard Nixon respectively in Morgan’s stage production, reprise their roles for the big screen. For those unfamiliar with the events surrounding Nixon’s resignation, Frost is inspired by the prospect of a huge television audience and, along with his producer and friend John Birt, requests an interview with the disgraced President. The lengths Frost is required to go to in order to obtain the necessary capital, a previously unheard of $600,000, sell the interviews to networks and obtain sponsorships are portrayed, along with the efforts of Frost’s hired investigators, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr., to uncover information, principally on the Watergate scandal. The interview is divided into four sections, covering foreign policy, domestic policy, ‘Nixon the man’, and the Watergate scandal. The first three recording sessions portray Frost as being unable to ask the difficult questions he intended of the President, who manages to prevent Frost from challenging him by entering into lengthy monologues and reminiscing about past events. Frost’s editorial team becomes greatly disheartened at this, and the prospect of Nixon exonerating himself, however in the final interview Frost takes a sterner and more confrontational line with Nixon, challenging him on numerous occasions, and providing hugely discrediting information about Charles Colson. Nixon’s response to his interviewer’s accusations and questions, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal!” shocks Frost, who proceeds to extract a confession of sorts from Nixon, before the former President admits “I let the American people down”.

Langella’s portrayal of Richard Milhous Nixon is exemplary, as is Michael Sheen’s interpretation of David Frost. As critic Roger Ebert states, Langella and Sheen “do not attempt to mimic their characters, but to embody them”. This is especially true of Langella, who “by the final scenes”, in the words of Variety’s Todd McCarthy, “has all but disappeared so as to deliver Nixon himself”. Langella’s portrayal of Nixon is not only hugely convincing, but from my own knowledge of the infamous former President, by no means inaccurate. Conrad Black’s description of Nixon as “driven” though “uneasy with himself in some ways”, is precisely the persona Langella creates. The film’s darkest scene, in which Nixon telephones Frost and impresses upon him the fact that the interview will make just one of them, whilst breaking the other, portrays Nixon at his most introspective, alone, albeit talking on speakerphone, with his own innermost thoughts. The final scene, in which he comments on how lucky he deems Frost to be for having ‘likeability’, reveals perhaps one of Nixon’s deepest discontents. No matter how successful his Presidency, no matter that he’d ended the war in Vietnam, begun the much needed process of Détente, and reached out to Communist China, his legacy was forever tarnished by the Watergate scandal.

Whilst I do not wish to enter into the Watergate scandal in any great detail, it does appear to demonstrate the extent of Nixon’s insecurities, paranoia and inherent knowledge of his failings. Black proceeds to assert that Nixon, despite believing himself to be “doomed to be traduced, double crossed, misunderstood and unappreciated”, imagined himself to be capable of prevailing through is “mighty will, tenacity and diligence”. Frost/Nixon at times creates sympathy for the former President, whose achievements in foreign affairs, the Vietnam War notwithstanding, would be enough to rank him highly, only if he had possessed the popularity of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, for example. Langella expertly portrays a President at odds with himself; Nixon yearns for acknowledgement, popularity and appreciation, but his inability to admit mistakes and apologise prevents him from such achievements.

Meanwhile Sheen’s portrayal of David Frost is no less impressive, and shows a man at odds with probability, if you’ll pardon the expression. Although a large proportion of the film depicts Frost as an effortless, charming playboy, all smiles and composure, Sheen still manages to depict a sense of urgency and at times desperation, which Frost would have almost certainly felt. With his broadcasting career on a knife-edge and facing a financial black hole if the interviews fail, Frost’s image of unflappability and unwavering calm is proven to be a lie. Frost is shown to crave fame, attention and importance, as well as being hugely audacious and willing to take risks. Towards the end he emerges from his metaphorical shell and turns the interview into what it was always supposed to have been, a ‘no holds barred’ contest between two very different, but altogether similar men. The ending may prove slightly Hollywood-esque for some, and a number of people have criticised the film for its supposed inaccuracies, but Frost’s ability to overcome the Nixon machine and claim a historic victory for honesty, truth and justice makes it, as Manohla Dargis of the New York Times states, “more palliative than purgative”.

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