Review - Frost/Nixon
dir Ron Howard Script by Peter Morgan
By Gerry Fitzpatrick
2 February 2009
Trying to ignore David Frost in the 1960s and 70s was indeed a difficult task. His dominance of Television began with his fronting That Was The Week That Was and continued with The David Frost Programme, The Frost Report and with several shows in the US and later Australia. He fully made up for helping establish London Weekend Television as a sophisticated channel of current affairs, arts and drama by later sponsoring the disaster that was TVAM. The famous comment about Frost that he was a man who had ‘risen without trace’ became more appropriate as he progressed from political satirist to ‘this charming man’, embraced and feted by the glitterati. At one point during the early 1960s he was appearing in his own show - on both sides of the Atlantic - on the same day. In his style and ambition he resembles that other 60s TV innovator Patrick McGoohan. Both thought that television should inform as well as entertain and both decided that by 1967 that the game was up.
For McGoohan it was the increasing darkness behind the bright colours of 60s consumerism that imprisoned and brainwashed people, for Frost it was searing brutality of the riots in Los Angles and Newark that convinced him that his type of optimistic liberalism had died. One only has to watch him in his 1968 interview with Enoch Powell as he pleads with him to renounce racism to gain insight into the futility and desperation of Frost’s approach. That was bad politics but ‘good television’. With his interviews with Richard Nixon he restored his reputation as someone who sometimes wished to bring the powerful to some account for their misdeeds (like his expose of Emil Savundra, the insurance shark). But according to Frost/Nixon (direction by Ron Howard with script based on the Peter Morgan play), the series of interviews Frost conducted almost became the opposite - a vindication of Nixon. I find it difficult to subscribe to this thesis – not because Frost went back to being a liberal but the opposite reason – he accepted the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party and like so many ex-liberals had been impressed by Nixon. The film shows Frost as a man fully at ease with the shallow glamour of his life –at one point he is shown doing a feature on an escapologist while Nixon and his cronies agree that he is not a serious threat. How and why did he manage to get Nixon to admit his culpability in Watergate?
From what I can remember of the original series of interviews as opposed to the film – Frost is much more personally concerned –and involved with Nixon as someone he wanted to believe in and it is this that makes the interviews compelling – for Frost, it was very easy to put himself in the position of those Americans who like John Dean III had admired and trusted Nixon – they all felt let down and wanted to know why he had let them down. At one point in the original Watergate interview Frost throws up his arms and shouts ‘why didn’t you stop it!’ It’s a frightening thought that if only Nixon had ‘stopped it’ that people like Frost and Dean and many others would have got what they desired – the renewal of their faith. But Nixon did not and would not have stopped – that much is clear from the film, which does give us some insight into how Nixon saw his power and those who he thought threatened it.
He was by the majority of accounts obsessed with enemies even when he was the most successful president in US history. The reports of the Watergate break-in began appearing in the Washington Post before his election victory in 1972 – the most comprehensive victory in US history winning 49 states out of 50 and 60% of the vote. In running a secret state from within the White House that ran on-going covert operations - specifically designed to ‘protect’ Nixon from those on the infamous ‘enemies list’. Nixon saw what Ehrlichman and Haldeman were doing as essential and central to the business of that secret state and his government. And as the film suggest without them – he is just another boozy politician alone at night drunk dialling threats.
After Frost receives one of these calls it is suggested that Frost decided to push the boat out to do the in-depth research that was needed, thus setting up the final ‘confrontation’ with Nixon over Watergate. The film has this as the penultimate moment when the truth is that Frost had his chief researcher James Reston Jr (Sam Rockwell) do a lot more work than is suggested in the film. As far as the look and feel of the film is concerned it manages to achieve a glamorous authenticity, which almost triumphs over the story. Ron Howard designer Michael Corenbilth succeeds in making the late 1970s look interesting and not at all the ‘decade that style forgot’ (Nixon at one point picks up on Frost‘s ‘Italian’ shoes as a sign of un-manliness –only to receive a present from Frost of a pair of the exact same shoes as a farewell gift).
Michael Sheen seems unable to shake off the sunny disposition of Tony Blair whom he recently played although he lets a few of Frost’s behavioural ticks through (too many or too strong would risk parody). Frank Langella is more languid and grave than Nixon was - we don’t see the nervous smile and the telling shiftiness of his body language that dammed him in so many peoples eyes on leaving the White House - and in the real interviews with Frost. It is Sheen’s Frost who has all the nervous smiles - too many in fact which gives Frost a comic air which he never possessed. Frost in reality was and is nearly always dry in his manner and humour, his mouth nearly always pursed expectant and if he did smile it was somewhat small and quizzical and not Sheen’s toothy grin.
Sheen is dammed to keep returning as Tony
Blair. We will have to see if Frost will return to interview the present
incumbent of the White House.