"That Was the Crook That Was"
"David vs. Go-lie-eth"
Well, it was hardly "An Epic Battle for the Truth." It was a stunt put on by David Frost and Richard Nixon to jump-start their respective careers. I remember those interviews and the hoopla they generated. there was a lot of heat in the media about "checkbook journalism," and it was being kind to call it "journalism"—Frost's go-to question always was "What is your definition of love?"* It was, in fact, the news-equivalent of opening Al Capone's vault, or the Billy Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match.
But it did happen, quite a bit of the way "Frost/Nixon" scribe Peter Morgan presents it. The legal wranglings, the rejection by the networks leading to syndication, the sponsorships by the new-tech "Weed-Eater" and Alpo dog food (Lorne Green was the spokesperson). I remember the stories of the exploding light, Nixon's remarks of Frost being his "Grand Inquisitor," even the "Did you do any fornicating?" line that (although it didn't occur right before taping as the movie would have you believe) Nixon threw at Frost when the cameras weren't running.
But there's enough difference to make it suspect. The interviews were not as packed with drama as the movie would have you believe (see the video below). They were quite benign affairs, and Nixon didn't betray any secrets that he didn't want to betray--the movie doesn't tell you that Nixon's deal included 20% of the royalties of the syndication, which made him Frost's partner in the enterprise, and the former president knew that throwing in some red meat would garnish more money for him.
The furthest afield that Morgan goes is the most interesting. The playwright/screen-writer invents a late-night phone-call between Nixon (Frank Langella--after a while you buy him, but his Nixon speaks like a dilletante) and Frost (Michael Sheen—his Frost is vocally perfect) before the final interview, the one involving Watergate. Frost, ill-prepared and feeling in over his head, is caught in a moment of self-doubt when Nixon, with a couple drinks in him, calls and has a heart-to-heart comparing Frost's history to his own—of being shunned by the privileged kids, the ones who got all the breaks. Finally, Nixon builds to a fevered pitch and becomes the ranting monster everyone imagines him to have been, yelling that "all those (expletives deleted) can choke!"
And this is the problem: that phone-call never happened.** It's an invention of Morgan's to transtion Frost from defeated to fighting, and although it dramatically works, it's a cheat. The truth of the matter is that Nixon is never the monster that the dramatists and speculators want him to be—as threats to democracies go, he was a rather dull one, but, as with "Secret Honor," the fictional Nixon, drunk, raving like a bitter lunatic, vengeful and self-pitying (which he was), but dramatically incapable of being Lear, just isn't good enough to square with the man who used his office like a club against his political enemies, and set up his own police force to carry out the dirty work that even J. Edgar Hoover disapproved of. One suspects "The Queen" isn't nearly as accurate a picture of Elizabeth II. Reality just isn't dramatic enough.
Still, it's a great cast with Kevin Bacon as Nixon's Chief of Staff, Matthew Macfadyen (blonde Beatle-wigged as Frost's producer), Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Frost's researchers, Toby Jones as a perfect Irving "Swifty" Lazar, and the original "Bad Seed " Patty McCormack plays a frail Pat Nixon.
It's certainly Ron Howard's most subtle film in years—there's no evidence of the grand-standing direction that weakens a lot of his out-put, and his asides and cut-aways aren't distractions, but part of the fabric. He merely provides the arena, and lets the actors do their work. It shows just how good a director he is, when he's not trying to show how good a director he is.
"Frost/Nixon" is a Matinee.
Reality and Fiction: Frost and Nixon and "Frost/Nixon"
* My favorite answer was Richard Burton's: "Love is staying up all night with a very sick child...or a very healthy adult." Barbara Walters' go-to question was "If you were a twee, what kind of twee would you be?"
** And Morgan does some obfuscating on the point: Nixon doesn't recall making the phone-call, although Frost assures him that he did.