Frost/Nixon is a witty wrestle between two powerful, overzealous men - former president Richard Nixon and celebrated TV talk show host David Frost - played out in front of a TV audience of millions, surrounding their individual attempts to out-do the other's agenda (Nixon - to win back his public's confidence; Frost - to save his career and be the first to coax the confession that up until then even Washington had yet to secure), and come out on top.
Frost/Nixon presents the events leading up to and surrounding the now-infamous Watergate interviews in a carefully calibrated light that, despite the fact that they took place more than 30 years ago, not only makes its audience feel as if it is party to the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the tapings and watching it unfold in real time; but perhaps more importantly that its historical significance makes it appear relevant for today's political landscape (will we see Bush make a similar admission on behalf of his own political mistakes?).
From its opening scene, Frost/Nixon oozes charisma and prowess. While we already know the film culminates in Nixon's resignation from the presidency, it cleverly peels back the layers, lending depth and complexity to his private construction as a person, against a cultural backdrop of his public consumption as a political leader. By powerfully critiquing Nixon’s mediated persona it sheds light on his flaws not as a leader of the free world but as a human being. Ultimately, it's a film of intellectual stamina that explores the boundaries of what is and isn't fair game in the scandalous world where politics and the media collide. A world where nothing is exempt, everyone and everything's at stake - including Nixon himself.
The most interesting part isn't Frost's much-lauded ability to draw out Nixon's confession that the United States, and indeed the world, had waited three years for - though it certainly makes fascinating viewing in and of itself - but that while it uncovers one of the biggest political crimes of recent times, it also serves as a cogent reminder of the shifting nature and role of morality in public life.
The director, Ron Howard, draws the disgraced Nixon in a way that is nothing short of stunning. Re-imagining the eventual unravelling of the former president, Howard's clumsy, cumbersome, controlling Nixon sharply reduces the otherwise cunning leader to a paragon of ridicule and disrepute. His hunched-over stance, deep and measured tone combined with his inevitable look of despair drive forward the film's sobering narrative with utter conviction. The dialogue, which is punctuated with real and fictionalised conversation, heeds Nixon’s internal frustrations. After asking Frost whether he enjoys attending parties, Nixon remarks: “You have no idea how fortunate that makes you: liking people and being liked, having that facility, that lightness, that charm. I don't have it. I never did. It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinges on being liked.”
Although Howard’s film is a riveting rendition comprising equal parts voyeuristic journey and social analysis, his directorial success lies in his ability to pull no punches. In one scene, for example, the adversaries are sitting head to head in the living room of the fallen president’s San Clemente, California, home waiting for the cameras to start rolling, when Nixon quietly attempts to throw Frost off his game. “Do any fornicating last night?” While the film delicately portrays each character’s modus operandi, it achieves its greatest impact when, following the final taping, Nixon walks to his waiting limousine, sees a woman in the crowd holding a dachshund and - completely defeated and bruised - stops to pat it.
While the film is an astute intellectual game of political poker, exposing the tense, strategic moves played out by Frost versus Nixon, it isn't without its flaws. For one, David Frost's girlfriend, Caroline Cushing, is depicted as a somewhat vapid, uninspiring character, who's simply happy to take a back seat as a ready-made companion to Frost and his ambitions; when in reality Cushing had her own successful career as a high profile journalist - with Vanity Fair and The New Yorker no less. Frost himself is painted as a flawless Lothario, armed with a knack for charming his way through life, while his true character couldn't be any more different. In a candid interview, for example, the real Cushing describes Frost as the quintessential workaholic, always complete with ink marks all over his hands.
With its use of dramatic licence the film may be a jagged little pill to swallow for those of us who lived through the mid 70s. For younger audiences however, it is likely to spark renewed interest in the heady game of politics.
Nixon may be dead, and Frost beyond the crowning point of his career. But Frost/Nixon will forever capture the moment that brought the era's political paradigm to its knees.
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