Frost/Nixon (2008)

Rated R Our Rating: V-0; L- 3; S/N-0 . Length: 2 hours 2 min.

Then the led him up and showed him in an instant
all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to
him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this
authority; for it has been given over to me, and I
give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will
worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered
him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Luke 4:5-7

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Psalm 51:6-7

Frost and Nixon during their taping session.

2008 Universal Pictures

What a relief it might have been, for himself and for the nation, had Richard Nixon’s understood and prayed Psalm 51. After his resignation under the threat of impeachment because of the Watergate scandal, the former President kept silent for almost three years, seldom seen emerging from his seclusion. Then in the summer of 1977 he agreed to sit down with British showman David Frost for an interview about his years in office. That he chose Frost, rather than a seasoned television journalist, was what surprised people the most.

Ron Howard directs this attention-riveting adaptation of Peter Morgan’s popular play, and the two stars, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are outstanding as David Frost and Richard Nixon. Langella at first does not look like Nixon, but he has so mastered Nixon’s stooping posture and mannerisms that we soon begin to believe that he is Nixon—watch for lots of Oscar buzz about him. Set up like a David and Goliath story (remember Erin Brocovich in which a paralegal secretary goes up against a giant utility company, or an umpteen dozen sports films?), the film delves into the details leading up to and during the taping of the TV interview watched by an estimated 45 million people.

Everyone, including his own staff at first, regarded David Frost as a light-weight TV host—in Australia, at that, not a seasoned journalist, and thus expect him to fall flat on his face. No one doubted that Richard M. Nixon possessed one of the wiliest minds of any living politician. Nixon accepted Frost’s offer because he wanted the large sum of money offered him, and because he thought he could easily outmaneuver Frost in a bid to restore his reputation after the disgrace of Watergate. Frost’s struggle to raise the money ($600,000 for Nixon alone) the taping and hiring a staff a staff is a good story in itself. Then there was the effort to convince the media outlets to broadcast the series, the major networks turning Frost down because of their disdain for pocketbook journalism.

At the end of three of the tape sessions, held in a sumptuous seaside home of a Nixon supporter, it looks as if the former President will succeed, so adept is he at distracting Frost with such questions as, nodding at Frost’s mistress and asking just as the camera is starting, “Did you have sex with her last night?” Then comes a night telephone call in which Nixon sounds like a character in a Western throwing down the challenge, “This town isn’t big enough for both of us!”

Director Ron Howard ably opens up the play, filming the crowds and hordes of media reporters, and the beauty of the seaside environment where the taping takes place. And film’s ability to bring us in for close-ups of the actor’s faces is very revealing of the characters’ feelings, especially with two such fine actors as Langella and Sheen. Even though we know the outcome, this is one of those films filled with suspense and revelation of character, resembling ever so much one of those Greek or Shakespearean tragedies in which the protagonist is brought down by his hubris.

For Reflection/Discussion

Contains spoilers.

1. What would you say are the chief characteristics of each of the main characters? How is this another good example of the danger in underestimating one’s opponent?

2. What does President Nixon hope to accomplish by submitting to what he knew would be an ordeal? What might have been the consequences had he succeeded in his aim?

3. What has the Watergate controversy done to the US people. (Added to this, of course, to make this bi-partisan, is President Johnson’s deceptions of the American public in prosecuting the Vietnam War.) Do you think that we are regaining our respect for or trust of politicians? What do you base such an opinion on?

4. One of Frost’s associates says that he wants to give the people the trial that Nixon never had. Were you one of those who felt that the country was cheated by President Gerald Ford pardoning his predecessor? Or do you believe that he did the right thing so that the country could get on with the healing process?

5. In the late night telephone conversation Nixon points out that they are both outsiders: how was this so? What do you think of his challenge concerning there being room for only one of them in the limelight? How does this attempt to intimidate Frost backfire? (During the first three tapings how does Nixon try to rattle Frost with mind games and remarks?

6. What do you think of Nixon’s “confession” in the last segment? Of the following exchange: Frost, “Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?” Nixon, “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal! Frost, “I’m sorry?” How is Nixon’s opinion a dangerous one? What other Presidents seem to have felt the same? How does this go against our traditional concept that ours is a nation of laws? How is this still being debated?

7. If politicians were taken up on that mountain and “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world,” what do you think most of them would say and do in response to the Devil’s invitation? Looking back at our history, which ones do you think might have succumbed? How does this show the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in setting up the Constitution with its system of checks and balances? How has this worked out in our history?