Dec. 15, 2009
Frost/Nixon (2008)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Rebecca Hall

What it's about. A dramatization of the 1977 series of interviews between disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and television personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). The interviews were filmed, heavily promoted, and successfully syndicated on American television.

Then they were forgotten, except by playwright Peter Morgan, who had a major Broadway hit with "Frost/Nixon." Inevitably, this led to a feature film, which retained the two leads from the stage play. Morgan is given sole credit for the screen adaptation.

In the movie, Nixon is a cagey old politico whose right-hand man is the deadly serious Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Nixon regards Frost as a lightweight, and hopes to use the interviews as a chance to redeem himself despite his Watergate foibles. They are also profitable: Nixon received 600K plus a 20% share of the profits.

Frost hopes to make money from the venture, as well as gain a foothold in the lucrative American television market. Frost hires two experts to prepare for the interview, embittered Nixon hater James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and veteran television news producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt). Also on his side is his pleasant new girlfriend, Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall).

From Frost's perspective, the initial interviews with Nixon go poorly. Nixon is long-winded and self-serving. Frost is also having trouble financing and distributing the project. He also has trouble keeping Reston and Zelnick happy, since their reputations are on the line if the project is a fiasco.

It all comes down to the final interview, which concerns Watergate. Frost asks tough questions, and Nixon admits "mistakes" with sufficient drama to allow Frost and company to declare euphoric victory.

Patty McCormack, whose name may ring a bell as the evil little girl in The Bad Seed (1956), has a small role as Nixon's loyal and somnolent wife Pat.

How others will see it. Frost/Nixon was hardly a blockbuster, but it received good press, and garnered five Academy Award nominations. The user ratings at are high and consistent. Those who have seen many movies before will notice the dramatic license taken by Morgan and director Ron Howard (more on this shortly), but most will accept this, if not at face value, then as necessary to provide a happy ending.

How I felt about it. With the exception of Apollo 13, which presumably benefitted enormously from the contributions of Al Reinert, I have never thought particularly highly of any of Ron Howard's movies. Some I haven't seen, such as A Beautiful Mind, which may hold some promise. Those I have seen, such as Splash and Cocoon, achieved commercial success by pandering to audience expectations.

Although Frost/Nixon is a bit better than those two movies, it also has its share of contrivances fabricated to make the story more juicy. For example, Nixon did not call Frost the night before the final interview. And if he had in fact done so, he would not have been drunk. David Frost was a multi-millionaire, and not on the verge of a financial debacle, as implied in the movie. Apparently, he was less of a playboy than suggested, as well. He did not meet Carol Cushing shortly before the first interview. He actually met her several years earlier, in 1974. She helped him obtain financing for the syndicated interviews, a less sexist role than she plays in the film, where her major contribution (besides providing consolation) is to go out for hamburgers.

These are all minor matters. More annoying is the implication that it was a transcendent moment when Nixon admitted his "mistakes" in the Watergate scandal, and that Frost had been steamrolled by Nixon in the interviews up until that point.

In truth, Nixon had a stake in the financial success of the interviews. His Watergate "confession," to the extent that there was one, was undoubtedly practiced and rehearsed. Nixon was, in effect, a handsomely paid actor. The interviews were classic checkbook journalism, rewarding Nixon for his crimes in office, for which he could not be legally held culpable courtesy of Ford's blanket pardon.