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Frost/Nixon Like Watching the Rocky of Journalism

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan based on his play
Universal, 2008

Richard Nixon becomes more fascinating the more we learn about him.  The Watergate break-in was only a small fraction of a mountain of corruption he and his cohorts were involved with during his Presidency, and had the burglars not been caught, who knows if we ever would have found out?  All the President’s Men, both the book and the movie, is a terrific look into investigative reporting that really only scratches the surface of Nixon himself.  Oliver Stone gave the biographical version back in 1995 with Anthony Hopkins with Nixon, probably the most revealing (and knowing Stone, a little bit fictional) look into the man.

And now, here’s an interview with British talk show host David Frost that I had no idea existed until this year.  The goal of this interview?  To get the confession to the American people that had eluded them for three years, that didn’t look likely to ever come with Gerald Ford’s pardon.  What Frost/Nixon shows is that confession wasn’t coming lightly, and what we have is a massive underdog facing a champion, trying to toe the line between respectful discourse and going on the offensive.

David Frost (the excellent Michael Sheen) is a floundering talk show host who had tasted some success in America before getting into a syndicated show (usually a “Frost Over [enter country here]“) on the verge of cancellation.  At this time, Nixon (Frank Langella) is resigning, and Frost, among others, sees the value in getting an exclusive interview with him, especially considering that some 400 million people watch Nixon resign.  With producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), they try to land the big fish.  Of course, hard-hitting reporters like Mike Wallace are already attempting the exclusive, but something that works in Frost’s favor is Nixon’s love of the dollar, and the desperate Frost ends up paying through the nose to get the interview, a rather personal problem considering that none of the networks want to take a chance on backing a relatively unknown British talk show host interviewing the most important American politician of the time.

Frost gets help from ABC executive Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who help with the research and the selling of the interview.  They have their doubts of David Frost, too.  He seems a bit of a playboy, walking around with a girlfriend (the gorgeous Rebecca Hall) he met on the plane over to America, going to a premiere of a film he helped produce, The Slipper and the Rose, the night before he’s supposed to interview Nixon.  Plus, Frost doesn’t seem to have the drive to nail Nixon to the wall.  But as Reston himself finds out in a wonderful scene, it’s one thing to spew vitriol and disrespect about a man behind closed doors, but when the man who was President is suddenly in your presence, it’s difficult to keep up the character you’ve created for yourself.

Frost is definitely out of his element in the beginning of an interview that will take place over a course of several days.  Nixon, known as “Tricky Dick,” and with his own preparation team, along with his former military aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) is able to deflect even the slightest of off-balance questions, and begin to ramble on about things that don’t pertain to the question.  One of the big topics Frost and company want to slam Nixon on is his continued involvement with Vietnam and the decision to go into Cambodia, which Nixon schools Frost on and becomes an opening salvo in which Frost doesn’t seem able to recover.  And the Watergate portion is looming, the one in which everyone is interested.  How can Frost knock the former President off-balance?

If you know the story or have seen the trailers, you know Frost does find that surprise left hook that gets Nixon off his game.  Meanwhile, you can enjoy some very fine performances from Sheen and Langella, our two unlikely headliners in a movie this big.  Langella’s got the Nixon impersonation down, but he’s so much more than a caricature, and despite what many feel about Nixon and the attempt to make him a monster, Langella, director Howard, and writer Morgan find the humanity.  It would have never worked and would have not been as satisfying had they not.  Nixon is an entertaining guy, one to say things off the cuff without a hint of irony or humor when his guard is down, that allow us into his character.

Ron Howard is clearly in his element whenever he goes back into history, and I do not include A Beautiful Mind on this point, but his films Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man are his most accomplished works, and it seems like he finds a way to underwhelm in all of his other attempts (The Da Vinci Code, Ransom, The Missing, EdTV, etc).  The interview process he sets up commands attention, and the auditorium is silent as Frost delivers his winning haymakers.

A sure bet for Oscar time, this one deserves much attention.

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