Michael Sheen (left) as British television personality David Frost and Frank Langella as former U.S. president Richard Nixon during their famous 1977 television interview in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon".  Both actors reprise their roles from the stage play by Peter Morgan, who also writes the screenplay for the motion picture adaptation.  (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Humbling A Disgraced President After Taking A Journalistic Beating
By Omar P.L. Moore/December 12, 2008

"Frost/Nixon" is a consistently entertaining film about the showdown between two huge egos separated by a table and the glare of an overwhelming weight of history.  Ron Howard's film isn't about Richard Nixon or about David Frost, although the story tracks the efforts of the British journalist to secure the ultimate big scoop: a heavily coveted interview with one of America's most despised, corrupt and tragic presidents -- it is about the age of "I've got you" journalism and the capacity of a politician to recognize his own failings and avoid defensiveness. 

"Frost/Nixon", which like the recent Oliver Stone film "W." presents a somewhat sympathetic angle to a much-hated president, is thrilling, with excellent work from Michael Sheen as the confident and charismatic Mr. Frost and from Frank Langella as Mr. Nixon.  Both actors reprise their roles from the Broadway and London stage productions of "Frost/Nixon", Peter Morgan's Tony Award-winning play.  Mr. Morgan also wrote the film's screenplay and it has many a great line, including the actual line spoken by Mr. Nixon (with a slight variation by Mr. Langella) during the interview with Mr. Frost about him doing extralegal things that are somehow not illegal simply because he's doing them.  Mr. Langella gives the disgraced former U.S. president a volatility and pain that is palpable, especially in the film's quieter or more profound moments of revelation.  He completely inhabits him in a physical way that is amazing.  The choreography between Mr. Sheen and Mr. Langella is sublime and the rapport they have makes for all the ingredients of a fireside chat, but their interview interactions are far from that.

However, what spoils, or at least tamps down the power and intrigue of the film is the documentary-like feel that it has, with the principal characters surrounding David Frost and Richard Nixon giving their impressions and recollections of the legendary 1977 interviews that defined and crystallized the power of television just about 25 years after it arrived on the scene.  The film stands alone without the supplemental anecdotes.  In employing this device perhaps Mr. Howard is assuming that younger moviegoers may not have understood or appreciated the nature and circumstances surrounding the most watched television interview ever.  (Did Mr. Morgan's play utilize this device?)

The film's supporting cast is great, with Kevin Bacon playing Nixon's political adviser Jack Brennan, Matthew Macfadyen as British television producer John Birt, Sam Rockwell as Washington political journalist and author James Reston, Jr., Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing, Mr. Frost's girlfriend, Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick and Toby Jones as the eccentric Hollywood power player and social stalwart Irving "Swifty" Lazar.

Behind all of the cameras and the lights lies the forever bond between David Frost and Richard Nixon: ethics.  In journalistic circles, paying for interviews is viewed as unethical and isn't looked at with much favor whatsoever, and Mr. Frost pulled his own money from his personal stock holdings in the now-defunct London Weekend Television network and paid what in today's terms is $600,000 to Mr. Nixon to speak to him over a four-day period spread over two months.  We know of Mr. Nixon's well-documented failings and denials, but there is also a silent sinister way in which Mr. Frost has himself manipulated the proceedings, perhaps heralding a path to where sadly, a lot of television journalism has ended up today.  Ironically, Mr. Frost was excoriated in the 1970's in some quarters as a television talk show host way in over his head with one of the world's most paranoid, self-destructive and self-loathing figures, but now there are plenty of those types of figures these days in America who have politically-oriented television talk shows of their own. 

Like the great film "The Insider", "Frost/Nixon" leaves us with much to ponder, but it is in the state of the relationship between politics and journalism that is the lingering harbinger of things that were to come, and have now arrived, some thirty-one years later.  With George W. Bush and an absent mainstream media today, "Frost/Nixon" illustrates that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Meet the new corrupt (and impeachable) boss, same as the old corrupt (and impeachable) boss.

"Frost/Nixon" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some language.  The film opened on December 5 in New York and Los Angeles and opened today in San Francisco and several other U.S. cities.  "Frost/Nixon" will expand to additional theaters in the U.S. and across Canada on Christmas Day.

Related: When David Frost Does It, That Means That It Is Not Illegal

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