FILM REVIEW: FROST/NIXON. RATED B? ( B Technical Scale. D Accuracy Scale.)

December 14, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
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Richard Nixon once said that the media would not have him to kick around any more as he was retiring from politics. This was after losing the race for the governorship of California to Pat Brown in 1962. It was an emotional moment on election night and he was conceding victory to Brown. How wrong he was on all counts. If nothing else the man was a come from behind fighter who would reenter politics and win two presidential elections and the media is still kicking him around 14 years after his death. The latest onslaught is this film based on myth, fiction and few facts.

The premise of the film is that a histrionic, English, talk show host on a down hill slide could best Richard Nixon in a television talk show about the ups and downs of his presidency including Watergate.

Frost is played by Michael Sheen who played Tony Blair in The Queen and Frank Langella best remembered as the infamous Clare Quilty in Lolita plays Nixon. Ron Howard is the director most recently remembered for the DaVinci Code and the director of the forth coming Angels and Demons based on the books by Dan Brown who apparently has come and gone leaving not much of intelligence or relevance behind except for the thin gruel of his two best known novels purchased and produced by the pop culture specialist Brian Grazer.

Sheen plays Frost as the superficial stand up comedian turned talk show host he was. He is depicted as a glib, skirt chasing hustler who secures an interview by paying Nixon and his agent Irving Lazar $600,000 for four 90 minute segments made on the speculation it would be picked up by one the major networks. However, ABC, NBC and CBS had, and still do, a strong aversion of securing interviews or news by paying for them. It is called checkbook journalism and it is considered an unreliable method of obtaining the truth, best left to the gossip rags like the National Enquirer, The Globe and others of the same ilk.

Parts of the original interviews are available on You Tube including the parts where Nixon says, “I gave my enemies a sword and they stuck it in me just as I would do the same to them,” or on Watergate, “I failed the American people”, or “when the president does something it is for the benefit of the American people and therefore not illegal.”

This is a dramatization of these conversation interspersed with the events that allegedly took place outside of the conversations themselves. One would be tempted to call this some kind of docudrama interspersed with actual newsreel footage from the era but that would be wrong. This is mainly a fictional drama. A well acted and well directed work, but a fiction never the less.

There are many remarks made to trivialize Nixon’s character such as he was greedy man seeking money for the interview and also a book deal. Hardly a greedy act by today’s standards and an examination of Nixon’s career indicates that he would have made much more money as a partner in the Wall Street firm, Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander if he stayed away from politics as he promised in 1962. Thus this trivializing of his character in an off hand way and other ways weakens the credibility of the picture. Among other things it is mentioned that Nixon thinks Italian loafers are effeminate or that Nixon disapproved of Frost’s relationship with Dianne Carroll because he was white and she was black.

This trivialization by the director and Langella’s characterization of Nixon in hundreds of direct and subliminal ways makes for the creation of a bad guy for the audience to hate but does a disservice to the audience, especially the younger audience, if there is a younger audience for this picture. The film should at least make a make an attempt to be a neutral observer of history for posterity’s sake if you pretend to be relating historical events of some consequence to American politics and the American political psyche.

A fundamental fiction in the picture and a key plot point is when Nixon calls Frost shortly before the Watergate segment is to be videotaped. This never took place. Also it is strongly inferred that Nixon was drunk at the time. Frost was challenged by Nixon in this fictional conversation and this energizes Frost to dig into the facts and do his homework on the time line and facts of Watergate and including the statement by Nixon he could raise a million dollars to silence the Watergate burglars if necessary. Which Nixon made before the eighteen minute tape erasure and indicates his knowledge and complicity in the cover-up.

Frost, according to the film, up to this point had conducted an ineffective interview exposing his lack of preparation for the events discussed. He basically asked prepared questions written on a clipboard and was unable to follow up with questions challenging Nixon’s assertions.

Nixon, working with out notes, parried his every question turning the answer around with unchallenged facts that reflected well on Nixon. Frost had according to this film failed as a journalist, an interviewer and exposed himself to ridicule amongst the more savvy political journalists by his naivete and lack of sophistication.

The fictional late night conversation with Nixon is meant to show just as the allegedly flawed character of Nixon laid the ground work for his own denouement in the real Watergate matter he does so again in the Watergate segment by invigorating a previously feckless Frost, who when challenged, finally did his home work and pointed out the errors in Nixon’s assertions that led to the concessions from Nixon that made the interviews a success. (A success for Frost in a monetary sense as he was able to sell the interviews in syndication to advertisers.) He also has been since knighted probably because of his financial benefit to the England like many other successful entertainers and businessmen have been also. Mick Jagger, Elton John, Richard Branson and many others have been knighted for their dubious contributions to Great Briton.

The inference to be drawn from this is that just as Nixon was his own hangman in the Watergate cover-up, he is again in this interview by goading Frost to the point where he doesn’t let Nixon slide or gloss over the facts of his role in Watergate. Thus Frost was finally eliciting what the maker of the film thinks are damaging concessions on tape for broadcast later. In this sense it is the second time that television was Nixon’s Achilles’s heel with its peculiar way of immortalizing an event in a crucible that can be manipulated in the hands of cameraman, producers, directors, editors, and others in control of the final shaping of the tapes. Lest one forget Frost was in final control of the tapes and the editing of same. The first time this happened was during the Kennedy debates which Nixon says the radio audience thought he won but the television watchers and critics thought otherwise. Thus costing him the presidency.

Frost is shown in this film as besting the man who went head to head with Mao, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and John Kennedy. Some the most able and politically astute men of the Twentieth Century. Is it possible that a man who was not a journalist or known for his political acuity, a past host of the Guinness Book of Records to best one the political eminences of the last half of the 20th Century? Only if Nixon wanted it to happen that way, not because Frost made it happen in reality.

Whatever Nixon decided to say was because he wanted to say it and also the fact he had total immunity, both civil and criminal, at the time he said it. If one looks at the You Tube clips of the real interview and then compares them with this film, so well directed and choreographed by Mr. Howard and acted by Langella, Sheehan and the supporting actors, you see that Nixon was essentially an honest man who made mistakes believing that he was acting in the best interest of the country. Although what he thought was best for the country in a situation with many gray areas was not a 20/20 assessment or even an unbiased assessment.

Langella’s depiction of Nixon as a louche character is unfair to Nixon, to history and to the American people. Anthony Hopkins depiction of Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon was better and closer to the mark as was Stones film a more honest attempt in dealing with the subject mater. If there is a louche character in this matter it was the real David Frost the final editor of the tapes. Michael Sheehan, a fine actor, comes across as too wholesome to play the real David Frost.

The problem with the film is that Mr. Howard, who made this film from an adaption of Peter Morgan’s play, painted the events and characters in black and white, inventing facts and creating myth’s to reach the audience emotionally and unnecessarily vilifying Nixon.

There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of this film stating that this is not history but a loose dramatization of past events for profit. Just as the taping and editing by David Frost was a dramatization for profit beyond Nixon’s control. Nixon gave Frost a sword and he used it. Nixon seems to have had a political death wish.

The film is attempt to demonize a man on the opposite side of the political spectrum from its creators 14 years after his death with a total failure to show Nixon in any positive light or neutral light.

It even pretends to be authentic by scrolling certain facts at the end as if all facts were depicted accurately in the film. This is the usual case when entertainment people attempt to dramatize current or recent events. They are so blinded by their own profit motive, prejudices and predilections that they fail to be objective. This film is technically well done but that’s as far as it goes. Howard and Glazer can return to their latest religious potboiler thinking they have added a political notch to their resumes when they have not fully analyzed or portrayed Nixon’s complicated persona.