by Rick Grant
Grade: A / Rated R / 122 min
The circumstances and intrigue behind the David Frost 1977 interview with the disgraced Richard Nixon were grist for playwright Peter Morgan’s stage play. Ron Howard saw the play and decided it would make a great movie. So, with Peter Morgan writing the screenplay adaptation, Howard made it happen.
Frank Langella starred in the play and director Ron Howard wanted him for the movie. Warren Beatty lobbied for the job, but Howard held firm on Langella as Nixon. Michael Sheen was tapped to play David Frost. It turned out he nailed the role, getting inside Frost’s skin and consciousness.
For both Frost and Nixon, the stakes were high. Frost had invested much of his own money in the project, which was not well received by network television. At the time, Frost was considered a comedic performer with a documentary show in Australia. Frost saw the interview as a chance to get Nixon to open up about Watergate and also give himself journalistic credibility.
For Nixon, it was a chance to explain and play down his actions that led to his impeachment. Thus, he was hoping to rehabilitate his image as an elder statesman. Frost’s research team were gunning for Nixon and were hoping to expose him in an unfavorable light. Sam Rockwell portrays Frost’s writer and keen Nixon hater, James Reston, Jr.
Nixon’s advisors included his friend and loyalist, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) who drafted the original agreement about the context of the interview. Frost agreed to keep the questions about Watergate to 25 % of the interview, which would take place in a house owned by a friend of Nixons over many weeks. Nixon’s people felt that Frost was a light weight and would not harm Nixon’s image. More importantly, to Nixon was his fee which had been negotiated to $600,000 for his time.
Michael Sheen deftly portrays David Frost who looked at this interview as a career milestone event. He spent long hours studying the transcriptions of the Nixon tapes to find material for his questions. For Frost, his entire future in television and his personal financial security was riding on this event.
Director Ron Howard masterfully orchestrated the interview sequences with the behind-the-scenes shots involving Frost and his team. Rebecca Hall played Caroline Cushing, who became Frost’s girlfriend during the Nixon shoot. Oliver Pratt portrays Bob Zeinick who like James Reston Jr., was hoping that Nixon would slip up and admit he lied, cheated, and initiated the Watergate break-in.
As Frost and Nixon got ready for the showdown, Nixon called Frost one night and talked about his philosophical viewpoint about their interview. Nixon looked at it like a boxing match and was testing Frost as a worthy opponent. Frost knew that his career was on the line and he prepared diligently to be ready for the verbal sparring.
Frost had mixed feelings about the interview. He didn’t share the hateful attitude that his team expressed. Going in, he felt empathy for Nixon, but as the interview progressed, he saw an opportunity to score a knockout when Nixon had boxed himself into a corner. Nixon finally admitted he made mistakes and even committed wrongdoing, but he rationalized that as President, he had special powers that made him above the law.
This incredible admission was one of the stunning moments of the interview. Frost moved in for the kill and didn’t let Nixon off the hook. No one in Frost’s or Nixon’s camp believed that Frost had the journalistic killer instinct to get Nixon to make these shocking admissions. Frost had accomplished the impossible by adhering to the tenants of the agreement contract, while getting Nixon to admit to his transgressions. Both camps were pleased.
The interview was sensation and every television network on the planet bought it. Frost made back his investment plus many more millions on this interview that no one wanted to buy. Ron Howard has created a penetrating film that is riveting and multidimensional. An Oscar buzz is already in the works.
by Rick Grant