Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Frost/Nixon: History reimagined

The 37th president, Richard M. Nixon, struck me as a man who mourned even as he celebrated victory. David Frost, the British talk show host, was more a pursuer of pleasure. These two unlikely combatants met in 1977 for a series of televised interviews, the first that Nixon granted following his August 9, 1974 resignation from the presidency. The event became the basis for a play, then a 2008 movie directed by Ron Howard. Frost/Nixon earned several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for Frank Langella (who lost to Sean Penn of Milk). It’s a surprisingly riveting drama about two men in search of redemption. Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment, and Frost’s talk show, syndicated throughout the U.S., had been cancelled and the host reduced to emceeing a show on Australian TV. Frost, eager to reclaim the success he once enjoyed in America, sets out to scoop the news media that regards him as a lightweight, a “performer” rather than a journalist, by convincing Nixon to agree to a series of sit-down interviews.

Money talks, and it was money that got Nixon talking at first - $600,000 that Frost had to dig into his own pocket to provide since sponsors looked askance at both Frost, a British talk show host with no real experience in hard news, and Nixon, who a majority of the American people had not forgiven for Watergate. The fact that Frost paid Nixon was also controversial. The supposedly more respectable news outfits complained of “checkbook journalism,” but since CBS had offered Nixon exactly half of what Nixon received from Frost, the English “performer” was probably correct when he dismissed their complaints as jealousy. Once Nixon had agreed to what his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, believed would be a “big wet kiss. This guy’ll be so grateful to be getting it at all, he’ll pitch puffballs all night and pay a half million dollars for the privilege,” Frost attempted to sell the shows to the American TV networks, none of which expressed interest. Fact is, Frost was a lightweight.

“Success in America is unlike success anywhere else,” he tells his producer. “You know, there’s a restaurant in New York called Sardi’s. Ordinary mortals can’t get a table.” When Frost had a talk show in America, “the place was my canteen.”

Frost is not content to be a success in his native Britain. Having conquered America once, he needs to conquer it again. Nixon, on the other hand, has his own selfish motives. He wants to regain the respect he once enjoyed on the world stage. Nixon calls the interviews a “challenge to a duel.” Frost initially denies it’s a duel, but knows that Nixon’s sizing up of the deal is accurate. It’s a duel and only one can win. Nixon keeps the upper hand throughout most of the sessions, and the journalists whose services Frost enlisted to help him in preparing the questions regard the interview as a failure and an embarrassment until the finale when Nixon loses his cool and expresses his view that if “the president does it, that means it’s not illegal. That’s what I believe.”

I’ve always had a certain admiration for Nixon. The fact that he was forced from office suggested to me that he was less a villain than a victim. Like John Kennedy, he must have been in the way of powerful forces and had to be removed. Plus, Nixon had a persecution complex. In a late night phone conversation, Nixon rambles on to Frost that both were looked down on by snobby elites and their subsequent careers were motivated by a desire for revenge: “No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you or how high the elected office is for me, it’s still not enough. We still feel like the little man, the loser they told us we were a hundred times.” Frost reluctantly admits that Nixon is right. Both are “looking for a way back into the sun, into the limelight, back onto the winner’s podium. Because we could feel it slipping away. We were headed, both of us, for the dirt, a place that snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust, humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard.”
Nixon, his rage fueled by alcohol, say “To hell with that!,” then vows to “show those bums. We’re gonna make them choke on our continued success, our continued headlines, our continued awards, and power and glory! We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!” He then asks Frost if he’s right. “You are,” Frost says, but adds “Only one of us can win.”

Drama requires that only one of these duelists emerge triumphant, and the writer, Peter Morgan, throws the spoils to Frost who, we are told at the film’s conclusion, “continues to work as a TV presenter and news interviewer,” whereas Nixon, who died in 1994, never escaped controversy” and “remained largely absent from official state functions.”

Frost’s costly gamble certainly paid off. The interviews, syndicated to local television stations in the spring of 1977, were a big success, and earned cover stories in Time, Newsweek, and TV Guide.

Nixon did not win the redemption he sought, but he remains a towering figure in American politics. It was Bill Clinton who did much to bring Nixon back into the limelight, inviting him to the White House and soliciting his advice. It was Clinton, who, speaking at Nixon’s funeral, said it was time to judge the man on his complete record, not only on Watergate. One wonders what Nixon would have thought about Clinton’s own scandal during the second term of his presidency. Nixon was threatened with impeachment, but stepped down before Congress could take that action. Clinton was impeached, but refused to resign in an act of defiance that one would have expected from Nixon.

Frost/Nixon is probably Ron Howard’s best film. The performances are excellent throughout with Michael Sheen nailing David Frost. He captures the man’s rather smarmy charm, as well as his voice and tendency to sometimes swallow his words. Frank Langella has the greater challenge. Few presidents are as recognizable or as quirky as Nixon. There’s those prominent jowels, the widow’s peak hairline, and the hunched shoulders. It’s not an easy role to play, but Langella meets the challenge and makes Nixon real.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


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