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5 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"By Sweep's Hook We Give You The Crook"
5 stars

In May of 1977 I wasn’t old enough to know who Richard Nixon was, what this Watergate was all about or why he was being interviewed by a talk show host named David Frost. Even during my formative years, that month and year would come to symbolize the beginning of a little thing called Star Wars rather than the final nail in the public’s perception of Tricky Dick. As I grew older and more politically aware, it became the mistakes of our Presidents that stood out in their run rather than their accomplishments. Iran/Contra, “no new taxes”, wagging fingers and Oval oral have all found a way to make their way into our lexicon and continue, what we’re told in Peter Morgan’s play, is Nixon’s most lasting legacy – the label of “gate” to identify any wrongdoing in the White House. History is doomed to repeat itself though by those who failed to learn from it and as forgiving a nation as we can be, the accountability of an apology will still have its detractors. After countless Gates have been opened over the last eight years, it’s a wonder how many hours of interview footage it would take to get one single, heartfelt sorry from our exiting President. In 1977, it took less than six hours of broadcast television.

David Frost (Michael Sheen) watches as Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) makes his final trip off the White House lawn, wondering what the ratings were. Inspired by the potential for a sweeps-like grabber, he suggests the interview idea to John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), his producer friend can’t imagine why the disgraced President would want any part of a sitdown with the cheeky host seen recently introducing escape artists and the Bee Gees. Nixon, meanwhile, is hardly attracting interest in his memoirs and speaking engagements are a joke further hampered by his inability to present himself as one of the people. Talent agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) does manage to get Frost to up his price, even while the networks (who wouldn’t admit to paying for interviews) were already well below his original offer, and it’s off to America.

Frost hires a pair of investigators to prepare the 4-part interview series – ABC newsman Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and novelist James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell) who was determined to get the admition of guilt from Nixon that the country never received. Frost had his share of distractions though, starting with the lovely Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) whom he met on the plane over, and using night and day to sell the program that, up to this point, he was financing himself. As the interviews began, Nixon was clearly in control, displaying a casualness in storytelling that avoided the real issues and made Frost look like just another softball. His Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) saw it all along, believing they were in for a free paycheck while presented with the opportunity to pardon himself in the hearts and minds of Americans. But if there’s one lesson Nixon apparently never learned was to not drink and dial as it catapulted Frost to snag one of the most revealing moments in television history.

What we see in Frost/Nixon is not meant to be taken verbatim. We have 28 hours of footage culled down to six for TV and now probably down to maybe a half-hour of cinematic screen time. Within that framework lies the overall thematic elegance of Peter Morgan’s subtly biting expose on soundbite politics and journalism. Two men who have risen and fallen thanks to the effects of television have now come together in a last ditch effort to use the medium to save them – in the eyes of those watching them. Nixon, in particular, had a life haunted by the medium from the sweaty 1960 debate with JFK to denouncing his crookdom and eventual resignation. Even Woodward and Bernstein of the old school of journalism got the photogenic treatment on the big screen. By not using a direct transcript, the dramatic license that Morgan takes with the interviews is its own commentary on television allowing us to hear what it wants us to. A momentary slip or edit out-of-context can define a person’s career or life forever and the backstage control over what can be said, what can be asked seeps into our modern cynical nature of knowing that we’re never hearing the whole truth.

There’s irony even in the title where Frost is given top billing over whom, few would agree, was a more important and interesting figure in world history. It forms the underlying basis for the crux of the mano-a-mano; Nixon embracing his underdog status and Frost facing the unenviable position of being at his wit’s end on his own turf. Our frustration growing with each confrontation is no different than any political talkshow we see nowadays where either the interviewee avoids the question or the interviewer fails to ask the right one. The arc of the four interviews retains the familiar vibe of the Cruise/Nicholson standoff throughout A Few Good Men, both films satisfying the audience’s need to see positions of authority forced into confronting their own misdeeds despite their belief in doing them for the best interest of the country.

Langella’s performance as Richard Nixon has more of the impersonation than we saw when Anthony Hopkins portrayed him – and even without makeup Langella resembles the former President more. But in many ways, Langella is able to give us a better encapsulation of the man’s self-hatred and search for acceptance in a country torn apart by an elongated, unwinable war. Ron Howard greatly assists in our empathy by framing him in unflattering close-ups, shadows and silent images as he sits as a broken man looking out over the vast waters of his ocean villa. Michael Sheen, who didn’t get quite the award recognition he deserved as Tony Blair in The Queen, is equally brilliant in the similar role of a man being overshadowed by a head of state (in title, if not power.) Never overplaying Frost’s early arrogance and downplaying the final faceoff, Sheen balances the character as neither champion nor unqualified cad and we’re able to see Frost as not just another personality but like all of us, bullied into finally demanding the answers we all deserved. Also terrific is the always welcome Sam Rockwell as the anger-fueled Reston, so ready for a takedown and skeptical of Frost’s intentions potentially making the wrong move at the wrong time, but (like most of us would), crumbles in the face of meeting the man who seemed so larger-than-life on television even when he was at his lowest. On the reverse side, Kevin Bacon may be the film’s unsung hero giving another brilliant, understated performance as the right hand filled with admiration and, ultimately, the crushing inevitability that he can protect him from everyone but himself.

As Richard Nixon faded into the infamy of American politics during his final years, the David Frost interviews also seemed to become an afterthought. Along with many films, both fiction and non-fiction, that have come along in the post-9/11 landscape, it’s the parallels that become of interest to historians and politically-oriented playwrights and screenwriters. Without George W. Bush, the Frost/Nixon conversations may have become just another anecdote of remembering when instead of confronting audiences with the ironies of two wartime Presidents not owning up to the mistakes that were made. Dubya’s folksy demeanor may make him a good TV Commander-in-Chief (especially with giving us enough verbal gaffes to fill up more tape than Nixon could have possibly burned or erased) but I somehow doubt that there’s anyone tough enough out there in the media who will ever get the chance to ask the right questions even if the right time has long since passed. Frost/Nixon couldn’t come along at a better time, just as the country is high on the concept of change and we’re already putting the lame duck out of memory. Except we should never forget, even if we can forgive, that it wasn’t so long ago in a galaxy not so far, far away that the sins of politics can form the basis for our future.

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originally posted: 12/05/08 16:00:00
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User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell good not great 4 stars
8/23/11 Annie G Excellent; well acted for a historical film about not too distant past. 4 stars
7/01/09 MP Bartley Stellar acting gives it the oomph that Howard's predictably pedestrian direction lacks. 4 stars
5/22/09 the dork knight A brisk movie, to the point. Good performances. 4 stars
2/22/09 Piz A little drab but considering the subject it was mildly entertaining. 3 stars
1/26/09 mr.mike Michael Sheen should also have been nominated for an Oscar. 4.5 stars. 4 stars
1/24/09 Suzz excellent film; superb acting 4 stars
1/17/09 Samantha Pruitt probably better on stage, boring in parts, but acting makes up for it! 4 stars
1/04/09 R.W. Welch Only slightly hoked up. Both leads highly effective. B+ 4 stars
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  DVD: 21-Apr-2009


  DVD: 21-Apr-2009

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