Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Frost/Nixon, keep in mind, is not based on the actual interviews that David Frost conducted with former president Richard Nixon in March of 1977. Rather, the movie is based on a broadway play of that name, a play that takes admitted liberties with the facts. Richard Nixon never actually apologized for his role in the Watergate coverup during their final interview (Although he really did say, "If the president does it, it's not illegal," nor did he call Frost the night before that interview.

But that fictitious phone conversation, in which Nixon, in a drunken rage, reveals to Frost his plans to claw his way back to power, is morally vital to the story. This play gives us a window into the rabid Nixon hatred that prevailed among the intelligencia for at least a decade after the man had retired to private life. Frost and his team of researchers don't just want information from Nixon, they want to put him on trial, with themselves as judge, jury, and executioner. Particularly in the person of Frost consultant James Reston (played by actor Sam Rockwell as a snivelling, sactimonious prick), they aren't primarily upset about Watergate except as a way of further embarrassing Nixon. They want to blame Nixon for strategic decisions made in a time of war.

It is the political corruption of journalism on full display, a corruption that the play/movie justifies by the prospect of a Nixon comeback. Such a comeback was surely fanciful in the extreme by 1977, and I find it highly unlikely that Nixon himself seriously contemplated seeking elective office ever again.

But the movie certainly works. Michael Sheen captures the Frost story arc as he matures from a playboy entertainer into a serious and disciplined interviewer. Frank Langella plays Nixon well, but it is the slightly doddering Nixon of the late '80s, not the late '70s; Nixon was only 64 at the time of the interviews, and in reality was quite energetic.

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