For my next film, I have decided to delve into the world of recent (if you can count the late 70s as recent) history, to a quasi-dramatisation of what some have said is the most famous interview ever conducted.
The David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews were conducted in 1977 and broadcast in four television spots on the US ABC network, with a fifth supplementary broadcast airing 6 months later. They are most famous for Nixon all but admitting his various obstructions of justice while in office. Originally, former President Nixon had agreed to the interview series based on the supposed “easy going” nature that David Frost had cultivated for himself throughout his career (which had been shown in a prior interview the two had shared, and had been described as “so softly that in 1970 President Richard Nixon ferried Frost and Mum to the White House, where the Englishman was appointed to produce a show in celebration of the American Christmas.”); however, what he found was a man every bit as sharp and tenacious as himself. This interview, and the effect its creation and production had on not only the two men, but those involved behind the scenes (on both sides), was in 2006 adapted into a highly regarded stage play; and in 2008, an equally highly regarded film directed by Ron Howard, starring a semi-all star cast, including Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella reprising his stage role as Former President Richard M Nixon. In addition, Toby Jones, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell show up in fairly large, yet far secondary to the main duo, roles.
I feel like doing a traditional review, so that is what I will do. Enjoy.
The film opens on a brief recounting of the Watergate scandal, which lead directly to Nixon’s resignation with a blending of actual footage (which continue to be use throughout the film) and shoot footage of Langella as Nixon giving the famed resignation announcement. From there, the film flips style between “documentary” (gaining insight into the thoughts of the secondary characters) and narrative style. One would think that this would be jarring; however, it all blends pretty seamlessly, thanks to the authenticity of the sets and costumes. From Nixon, the scene moves to David Frost, establishing his credentials as a lightweight, fluffy, softball interviewer – as said “the most unlikely of White Knights”, but one who did have some interest in what was happening in The White House. To the point where he took it upon himself to get the ball rolling on a possible interview with Nixon, post resignation.
The scene shifts to Nixon’s new home in California, where he is in negotiations to publish his memoirs. His literary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) convinces Nixon that he should go ahead with the interview idea put forward by Frost, not knowing what was to come of it. Frost, by now has been reduced to hosting fluff shows and desperate for a return to US television success, basically jumps at the offer and bends to the new deals offered to him (paying $600k, at the time the most expensive example of “chequebook journalism”).
Sadly for Frost, not one of the US networks bit at the chance to host the interviews; mainly due to the price paid and the stigma that went along with chequebook journalism; eventually having to resort to syndication to get the interview to air. In fact, his almost having to beg for advertising dollars continues for a good part of the interview timeframe. Undiscouraged, however, Frost meets with Nixon at his home to set up the interview and pays through the nose for the privilege. Following this, Frost puts together his production team, producer John Birt (Matthew McFadyen), James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), two investigators bought on board to find any information they can on Nixon. Reston, in particular, wants to “give Nixon the trial he never had”.
Things, however, are not going too well for Nixon either, who is on the public speaking circuit and loathes it; which gives him imputes to move ahead with what he still thinks will be a series of softball interviews. Frost’s team, however, are working around the clock to make the interviews something more. In a scene that first lets on to Nixon’s team that they may not be dealing with a puff piece, Frost argues down Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), over the terms of the word “Watergate” and how it would fit into the overall interview scheme.
Following some, no doubt at Nixon’s request, last minute string pulling and location changing designed to put David Frost on the back foot, the interviews commenced. And, given Frost’s insistence on opening questioning with “Why didn’t you burn the tape?”, Nixon fires back on all cylinders, answering the question so completely that Frost basically falls on his ass and allows Nixon to ramble. As Brennan states, the whole interview is basically a boxing match, and is set up as such: interview rounds, initial feeling out period, both men jostling for control – even a symbolic “gloves are coming off” scene, when Frost drops his notes, following Nixon calling him out on using them. Over the series of interviews and times both pre and post, the overall control gradually shifts from Nixon to the once-underestimated Frost, who gains upper hand when he changes tactic; from passive question asker to direct “pit-bull” approach and finally to a more friendly, intimate style (as stated by himself at the beginning of day two, “just your friendly neighbourhood confidant”) following a phone call from a possibly drunk Nixon, that has been designed to show him as a bully, thus giving Frost back the ground taken from him in the first interviews and eventually giving the closest thing to an apology that Nixon would ever publically give for his actions.
Throughout the timeframe of the interviews, Sheen portrays Frost as a man who gradually realises that he is following a dream that may not actually see the light of day, and in fact could mean the end of his existing career, but not letting that knowledge affecting the man behind the camera interfere with the man’s professionalism in front of the camera. Eventually, the interviews paid off, rocketing David Frost back to the top of his profession.
I have no real knowledge of either Former President Nixon or David Frost, outside of a few famous film clips (given that I was born in 1975, I missed the whole Watergate thing and paid no attention to it until it had long been confined to the annals of history); however, both Langella and Sheen’s performances painted each man as troubled, hard headed, tenacious, charming and at times fully aware of how lost they could become given the largeness of the interview subjects, but overall they were painted as all too human. Langella, in particular, is brilliant in his performance – possibly the best Nixon I have seen on film, portraying him as a broken, yet still able to charm everyone around him, man. From what I have read in my brief research into the subject, both upon the film’s original release and again for this review, some moments of dramatic license were taken (the late night phone call scene in particular), but I feel they only serve to move the story along for the viewer and don’t clash in a negative way.
All in all, a film well worth your time. Moreso, if you have any knowledge of the subject matter.