Thereís a powerfully dramatic scene two thirds of the way through Frost/Nixon.At this point in the series of interviews that Frost has been conducting with Nixon, the former President has maintained the upper hand, and is well on his way to his goal of restoring his seriously tarnished image.
Hereís the setting.Frost sits alone in his room at the Beverly Hilton, contemplating how to approach the final interview with Nixon, the one over Watergate.The phone rings.Frost thinks itís his girlfriend, checking in on his dinner order.Frost responds with certainty that he wants a cheeseburger.He is surprised to hear Nixonís voice.Nixon proceeds to lay out precisely what is at stake in this upcoming session, bravely stripping away pretense, challenging Frost to be his best, while taunting him that only one man will emerge victorious.Nixon, a few drinks in him, talks as though the two men are gladiators, with the stakes as grave as life itself.
Throughout the film Frank Langella as Richard Nixon provides a chilly yet balanced presentation of this complicated and tormented man, and distills it most clearly in this scene.Michael Sheen as British chat show host David Frost is also essential to this scene, so that weíre not privy to a Nixon monologue, but itís what his Frost does at the conclusion of the call that reinforces the significance of this moment in the film.Frost firmly grasps all that is at stake, all that has happened to this point, and finally immerses in the preparation and analysis critical for a substantial interview.
Nixonís challenge is accepted by Frost, and it re-energizes his flagging research team, inspires Frost, and provides him with both the information and the confidence to truly take on Nixon in the Watergate sequence, what is presented as the filmís final interview.
But what makes this scene ultimately so compelling is that Nixon denies it ever happened.When Frost mentions the call to Nixon moment before the final interview, Nixon is dismissive.Unclear whether this is yet another of Nixonís tactics to throw him off, Frost seems confused.But that confusion wanes in short order as he keeps his eyes on the prize, and soon delivers a penitent Richard Nixon for the American public.
Frost/Nixon is an entertaining and surprisingly engaging treatment of a moment in television history.Films donít seem to like recognizing the role that television plays in our lives, and in our history.While virtually every American knows the roughest of historical points involving Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Nixonís difficulties communicating through the small screen, director Ron Howard is able to walk us through those moments without cheapening them, or flattening the mountains of history that are being covered in this film.
But Howardís strength, beyond dramatizing the aforementioned conversation that anchors this film, is in recognizing the significance of a television moment, turning it into a film, and explaining for all why it is that this story matters. He does this primarily through on-camera narration.While not always effective as a device, here itís done in the guise of documentary style interviews with the characters who play Frostís researchers, Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick and Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr.
Through this Howard is able to note Frostís strengths as a television personality, a performer even, able to work the range of the television landscape and effectively deliver Nixon on trial before an audience of rapt jurors.And it reinforces why this interview from over 30 years back still has relevance.Itís the recognition that had Frost interviewed Nixon for any other medium, for radio, or for print, it would not have had the impact it did.It is in the presence of the camera, and Frostís knowledge of how to use it, that made this a moment in television history.And a story at that.
For a film about which the ending is known in advance, about whom the primary characters have been well documented in life, and also on stage in the initial version of this story, there is still ample energy and enough moments to carry through until the final meeting between these two men.And even though truth is sacrificed at times, and characters are compressed and consolidated, the truth is not eviscerated, and facts remain very much part of the spine of this film.
Langella as Nixon says that these interviews will reveal only one man as worthy, and will only allow one of them to carry forth.While Nixon certainly did not rejuvenate himself with these 1977 conversations, he finally provided America with context, and a sense that he accepted responsibility for his disgraced Presidency.Frost turned these interviews into a stellar career, and advanced himself into a category of celebrity interviewers. Each was able to gain from the process, financially, and professionally.
Today, itís hard to imagine having to wait upwards of three years, 1000 days, to hear from a former world figure.Itís harder to imagine that we would want to see the story behind any contemporary interview turned into a film.For that point alone, Ron Howard deserves credit for his staging and direction, though hopefully he will not spawn imitators.