It may be worth declaring a conflict of interest straight off: I can’t stand David Frost.
As a child, he instilled a strange kind of lonely hatred on Through the Keyhole – a formulaic game show in which the preening host would constantly insert amusing anecdotes about some famous person he had interviewed decades earlier.
And as an adult, embarrassment turned to frustration as politician after politician was given an easy ride on Breakfast with Frost – the BBC Sunday morning current affairs show that was finally booted off air in 2005 (but not before 12 years of instantly forgettable and, in some cases, depressingly bad interviews).
But these shows are minor manifestations of the two things that David Frost has been doing with extraordinary consistency for the past 40 years: interviewing people and annoying people.
It was announced at Peter Cook’s funeral that the comedian had only one regret in life: saving David Frost from drowning in 1963. Monty Python felt similarly and its members spent years ridiculing the man on TV, on radio and in print. In fact, the long list of people who have taken a distinct dislike to David Frost is beaten only by the list of people he had interviewed. It’s as if he is trying to outpace his own personality.
It is entirely consistent then that Frost has also managed to infuriate the screenwriter of Frost/Nixon, a film that portrays what was undeniably the highlight of the Frost’s career: a series of interviews with disgraced former president Richard Nixon in 1977.
Those interviews – or, more accurately, ten minutes in one of four hour-long interviews – entered into television legend when Frost managed to elicit what thousands of lawyers, journalists, politicians and judges had failed to get out of the stonewalling 37th President of the United States: an apology.
Reduced to an anecdote
But it has been 27 years since those interviews. What was once striking seems now out-of-date; what was once daring is now par for the course. The moment in which Nixon confessed that he had let down the American people and the whole system of government has become an historical anecdote, recalled dimly by those that were there, and retold unclearly to those that were not alive or were too young at the time.
Until that was playwright Peter Morgan saw something fresh in the story. Morgan has publicly steered away from comparisons with George W. Bush, but there can be little doubt that the resonance of Frost/Nixon has much to do with the fact that another controversial president is leaving office and that the American people feel somehow cheated and in need of some kind of apology for recent woes.
Morgan wrote a play that open in London in 2006 and which became an instinct success. Shortly after, director Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Cocoon) visited and decided he had to make a film version of the play. And that’s exactly what happened, with not only Morgan as screenwriter but the two lead actors in the play – Frank Langells as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost – reprising their roles on the big screen.
The result is very close to the play and so both dramatic and spellbinding. It takes a director of great skill to make himself invisible when adapting a story from one form to another but Howard pulls it off. Nothing too flashy or over-the-top and yet the pace is kept up and the tension – which ultimately makes the film – is skillfully drawn in to the climax and then just as skillfully released.
It helps of course that Peter Morgan managed to make the story of two difficult, egotistical men talking to one another for 12 hours a gripping event. And he did so by telling the backstory, using – in Morgan’s own words – Frost’s “extraordinary self-aggrandizing lopsided version of events,” as published in his book I Gave Them a Sword, as well as a behind-the-scenes account by a key researcher in the original interviews, James Reston, since published as The Conviction of Richard Nixon.
Out of his depth
As such, both play and film put into context Frost’s extraordinary efforts to secure the interviews with Nixon. Here was a British talk show host more at home trading sparky anecdotes with sports stars than trying to secure a lengthy interview with a difficult, defensive and extraordinary intelligent political giant who had recently been pushed out of the most powerful job in the world.
Unsurprisingly, no one took Frost seriously, least of all Nixon. In the end, it was pure greed that led to the interviews going ahead: Frost offered $600,000 for a series of four interviews, and Nixon felt it would be easy money. As the film makes clear, however, Frost struggled to meet even the $200,000 signing fee, particularly after all the main US networks refused to take the interviews – leading Frost to have to broker dozens of different deals in order to pull in the money.
Frost also had to put together a team of people that could make the most of his multi-million dollar gamble (in total, the enterprise cost $2 million, or around $7 million today). That wasn’t without its own problems – personalities clashed as the team argued about the best way to attack the problem. And then there were Nixon’s people: defensive, suspicious, used to being in charge. The film covers this backstory brilliantly – focusing on aspects that move the narrative forward without getting sidetracked on the multitude of interesting stories along the way.
The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that the interviews themselves were nearly a flop either. Apart from an interesting start on day one, Nixon controlled the floor as Frost floundered. This caused tension in Frost’s team, leading to one dramatic scene where Frost them that if they didn’t think the whole enterprise was going to be a success they should leave immediately. He then invites them to a grand birthday party in his honour.
There are light-hearted moments that give depth to the characters: Frost picking up of an attractive woman on a flight into Los Angeles; Nixon trying to knock Frost off-track by asking him left-field questions about his shoes and his sex life; Reston’s limp capitulation to shaking Nixon’s hand when he first meets him; Nixon getting a cheque made out into his name.
These moments, and the general hubbub that surrounds the filming of a big interview, all help focus attention and so build up tension when they are stripped away for the climax of the film – the moment that Nixon confronts his lies and his stonewalling and the appalling abuses of the power that was provided to him as president of his nation.
Where fiction meets reality
In an entirely fictional but powerful scene, Nixon calls Frost the night before the final interview and tries to relate to the man interrogating him. The real Frost/Nixon interviews in 1977 never managed to get into Nixon’s head and so the film does it for us – providing a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a man who rose from nothing to become president but who on the way was blown horribly off-course.
Langells – who looks nothing like Nixon – starts to become the man as he struggles with conflicting thoughts and feelings. Sheen, likewise, plays Frost with tremendous sympathy: a determined yet very human interviewer who recognizes he is probably out of his depth but finds the courage to plough on. And this tension from the last-night phonecall is carried into the final day of filming, when Frost expertly prods Nixon into his famous confession.
In the moments before the audience is given its release – as Frost sits pregnant on the edge of his seat; Nixon rolls words and phrases around in his head; and popcorn hovers over hundreds of people’s mouths – for a moment it is possible to look back nearly 30 years and understand what it must have been like for a nation torn apart by Vietnam and Watergate to have their former president finally confront his culpability on screen and in close-up.
For that reason alone, Frost/Nixon is a remarkable and valuable film. It brings something important alive and keeps this moment in history in people’s minds for another generation.
It is not without its flaws however. As ever with such a persuasive medium as cinema, the artistic licenses taken with the story (carried over from the play) will soon be fixed as fact in many people’s minds. The late-night phonecall never happened; the dramatic break when Nixon was about to confess was created by Frost, not Nixon’s chief of staff; the “last-minute” Watergate revelations had been uncovered eight months earlier by Reston; the interviews actually continued for another two days after the Watergate session.
These are all dramatic devices and probably harmless. What is less harmless is the confession itself. Far from the sharp, concise, tense confession Nixon provides in the film, the reality – as watched by millions of Americans – was a very much longer answer, circular with a number of explanations and threads, and ending with Nixon blaming his mistakes on listening to his heart rather than his head. By boiling down this real-world answer to a short clip, almost soundbite, history is rewritten in the worst sort of way: the past is redrawn to fit in with the present.
Also, as brilliantly written, filmed and acted as the film is, it will never become a great film for the simple reason that the subject matter offers no hope and the interview itself had no great or lasting impact. There are no lessons to learn here. As it is, Frost/Nixon is an entertaining and insightful record of a dirty job well done. Watch it once, be glad it happened, and move along.