Thursday, December 1, 2011


 I've only been reading American history for about 11 years now. Before 2000 I wasn't interested in the US of A at all as Europe's long history had me engrossed. But that all changed when I picked out a battered old 1960's biography on JFK at my local library. I read it and then suddenly ripped through the entire ( and substantial ) Kennedy section before I knew it. From there I've dabbled in the Revolution and the Civil War. But my main interest has been the block of presidents from FDR through to RMN's resignation. That whole period of American history is what has gripped my fascination the most. Pity my degree in general history didn't include one paper on US history. In fact it was 24 papers on banal crap that was a damned expensive chore to complete!

 Of course my number interest is in military history. So FDR is also tied in with WW2, Truman the tail end of WW2 and the Korean War. Then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon with Vietnam. So anything about these six presidents is of interest to me. But Nixon must rate as the one that has piqued me the most. I've read more on Kennedy and his family, but believe Nixon the far superior politician. Nixon is of so much interest is obviously because of Watergate, which exposed the abuse of power and his flawed personality. To be sure Nixon achieved many things as president, especially in opening up China, but when looking at Nixon the shadow of Watergate hangs over all.

 So when I saw the poster to this film in 2008 I wet my lips in anticipation. Funnily enough I had just finished David Frost's memoir on the Nixon interviews entitled ' I Gave Them a Sword ' ( a line Nixon uses in the film ). It may seem strange to many that a film about a disgraced former US president would find an audience in NZ. But find an audience it did. In fact it reached #6 at the box office and stayed there for several weeks. What I found interesting was the session I went to was made up almost entirely of those old enough to have lived through Watergate and seen the Frost Nixon interviews. It just goes to show that Nixon may be gone but his legacy/infamy still fascinates many people worldwide.

 This Ron Howard film adaptation is based on a 2006 play of the same name. It also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in their respective roles as David Frost and Richard Nixon. I believe the play was very well received and won numerous awards and nominations. So in many respects it was no surprise it was then adapted to film as many successful plays are ( A Streetcar Named Desire being a good example ). And like its play counterpart the film adaptation received its share of awards etc being nominated for no less than 5 Oscars ( Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing ) Of those five it won none. This is unfortunate, because even though the film is historically flawed, it has a stand out performance from Langella who, I feel, was terribly over looked for Best Actor in favour of Sean Penn in Milk. To be sure Penn was great, and Milk is a fine film, but for me Langella's was the better performance.

 But for all its Oscar nominations I'm not sure how financially successful the film was. I've looked up the figures on wikipedia which says it grossed US$27.5 million worldwide on a budget of ( supposedly ) US$25 million. Those are not particularly over whelming figures are they? I mean compare to the Us$18 million worldwide gross of NZ film The World's Fastest Indian ( which I reviewed two weeks ago )  That of Frost/Nixon is extremely modest to say the least. The good thing here though is that the film is judged on its quality and not its financial return. It may not have raked in big bucks but it was a fine film none the less.

 Luckily for the film also is that it wasn't judged on its historical accuracy. On release many Nixon-ophiles/historians alike criticised the films dramatic license taking (  the only real flaw in another wise excellent film ). The historical inaccuracies and license taking make for a fine script and viewing. But for those wanting a true blow by blow account of the interviews will feel aggrieved and let down by them. I am usually a stickler for accuracy in historical films, but once in a while I do recognise the whys of dramatic license taking.

 I won't go too deep into the inaccuracies etc as wikipedia's page on the film is a good enough place if you want to read more on them. But there is one scene that stands out for me, being both inaccurate, and yet in context to the theme of the interviews. I refer to the scene where Langella's Nixon rings Sheen's Frost late at night after a few stiff ones. In reality this phone call never happened. And yet it is a fact that in the later stages of the Watergate scandal Nixon was known to ring associates late at night after a few drinks and have no re-collection of having done so the next day ( Richard Nixon was well known for being unable to hold his liquor and it didn't take a lot to get him tipsy ).

 The scene may be historically incorrect but what it did in a scriptually great way was to show how important to both Frost and Nixon the intewviews were. If one or the other failed then they were out in the wilderness forever and both knew it.  Frost had invested his own money in the project and if it failed then his career was over. Conversely if Nixon came out of it smelling of exonerated roses then he could have climbed back into political favour, especially after Gerald Ford's mis-guided pardon.

 Like I say completely inaccurate. But in its way it brings home to the viewer what both Frost and Nixon hoped to get out of the interviews. Nixon wanted back into political life. Frost wanted a confession and the money it would bring in. The other inaccuracy is the how overplayed the last interview on Watergate was enacted. Apparently in reality Frost went quite easy on Nixon and reigned in his fierce interviewing technique. By doing so he was able to get more out of Nixon that Nixon would have otherwise divulged. Partisans on both sides question the accuracy of the script but that aside it is a fine example of dramatising history. 

 So the script is flawed historically, but none the less it is a worth while watch. The cast is truly excellent and there isn't a dud performance to be seen. To be sure Sheen and Langella were reprising their stage roles, and knew them inside out, but the support cast isn't lost next to them. I mean look at these names, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, and Oliver Platt. Seriously how can  go wrong with such a cast? Again there are questions about some of the historical aspects though,  such as the stern character played by Bacon. Apprently his character of Nixon aide, Jack Brennan, wasn't as stern being more reserved and gentle.

  Of course ultimately the film is about Sheen's Frost and Langella's Nixon. I thought Michael Sheen excellent as the playboy television entertainer David Frost. He pulls of the sleaziness of Frost and his playboy ways perfectly. But again some of that must be taken with a grain of salt historically. The only criticism I have read on Sheen's performance is from one critic who wrote Sheen was all ' frozen smiles '. Conversely another critic commented that both he and Langella went beyond just mimicking their characters and ' embodied them '. I'm not sure about Sheen's Frost as I've never really seen a lot of him. But I've read enough ( and seen footage ) on Nixon that Langella really did become Nixon himself. Langella, like many good actors,  did his research for the role by visiting the Nixon library and speaking to numerous experts. On set the cast and crew even went as far as to call him ' Mister President ' to get him into the role!!!

 I think his performance simply stunning. One critic summed it up perfectly stating ' the final scenes, Langella has all but disappeared as to deliver up Nixon himself. ' I couldn't have put it better. For me as a Nixon-ophile and historian ( as such ! ) I really like this film. Sure it is flawed in that it tinkers around with historical fact to make the film more dramatic. But I can overlook that because Frank Langella's performance alone as Richard Milhouse Nixon is reason enough to watch this film. It is very rare that an actor gets into the person they are playing, but Langlella does so in a superb piece of acting. The whole cast is good without being lost next to Sheen and Langella, the editing is note worthy ( hence the Oscar nomination ). Overall the film does well at showing the background to Nixon's resignation, the negotiations for the interviews, and the interviews themselves. The interviews in which the American people came as close as they ever going to get in recieving an apology from Nixon.

  IMDB has this with 7.8/10. It may be inaccurately flawed but it captures the feel and flavour of the events. If for nothing else that is what the film attempted to do rather than a provide a straight out historically factual portrayal. So in the end a fine and very solid film of which I'd give a 8/10 for its overall quality. Without question though I'd give Frank Langella a perfect 10/10, for not only playing Nixon so well, but for being as close as it was possible to becoming the man himself.

If you want to know more about the film's historical inaccuracies then go to wikipedia's page on the film. Towards the bottom is a good piece on them.

But click here for a synopsis and more:


  1. Excellent write up of one of my favorite films from that year, this is an actors movie and while there are some liberties taken it works well in terms of the screen story.

  2. I couldn't have put it better, it is an actors film. It certainly does take liberites historically, but I was able to put those aside because it is a good script which captures the ' feel ' of the times. Sometimes feel is something that is lost in historical dramas but in this the viewer is left in no doubt to how Nixon was seen by the world.
    Certainly one of my favorite films of 2008 as well!

  3. I have yet to see this and I have no excuse for doing not doing so. I received FROST/NIXON on DVD as a gift last year and have not got around to popping it into the DVD player yet. I'm useless.

  4. I wouldn't let that worry you. I had Sleepless in Seattle for 5 years before I watched it a fortnight ago!!!
    This is a good film and I'm sure when you do watch it you'll realise the wait was well worth it.