Ron Howard, 2008
Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatos: 92%
My Official Preconception: "A dramatization of the Frost/Nixon interviews. I saw a trailer for it! It looked very tedious!"
As it turned out, the trailer I saw included all of the key moments of the film, focusing on the dramatic revelations, so my preconception was fairly accurate. A movie based on a play that was in turn based on a series of conversations, Frost/Nixon is nothing if not talky. And although I am certainly not going to condemn a movie just because it doesn't blow up helicoptors for me, I'm also a big fan of events that unfold and situations that develop in my narrative entertainment. So although I can certify that this is a pretty good film -- and in particular, that it was magnificently acted -- it is, yes, a bit on the tedious side.
What I admired most about Frost/Nixon is its gesture towards the Shakespearian tradition of historical drama, in which the lives of kings were adapted for a sort of civics-based entertainment. Since Nixon was functionally an American king, or thought he was -- hence the troubles at the end of his, um, reign -- he is a great vehicle for the neo-Shakespearian treatment. (He makes good opera, too -- John Adams' Nixon in China is one of the most successful operas in the last twenty-five years.) And in the Shakespearian tradition, the principal characters are given some terrific soliloquies. Some are taken more or less from the historical record (I checked):
I let them down. I let down my friends, I let down my country, and worst of all I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now they think; 'Oh it's all too corrupt and the rest'. Yeah... I let the American people down. And I'm gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over....whereas some are obvious fabrications, although no worse for that:
Nixon: That's our tragedy, you and I Mr. Frost. No matter how high we get, they still look down at us.This second speech, a fictional drunken phone call from Nixon to his interviewer David Frost's hotel room, is the fulcrum of the film's narrative. The story of Frost/Nixon is that of two highly ambitious, highly intelligent men, each suffering in a kind of obscurity and disgrace. They regard each other with a growing respect, but enter their interview sessions as a sort of personal combat from which only one can emerge a victor, at the expense of the other. In the film, Frost goads Nixon into a confession of criminal wrongdoing and emerges triumphant, while Nixon slouches off to obscurity in his seaside California mansion.
Frost: I really don't know what you're talking about.
Nixon: Yes you do. Now come on. No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you, or how high the elected office is, it's still not enough. We still feel like the little man. The loser. They told us we were a hundred times, the smart asses in college, the high ups. The well-born. The people who's respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn't that why we work so hard now, why we fight for every inch? Scrambling our way up in undignified fashion. If we're honest for a minute, if we reflect privately, just for a moment, if we allow ourselves a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn't that why we're here? Now? The two of us. Looking for a way back into the sun. Into the limelight. Back onto the winner's podium. Because we can feel it slipping away. We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us that we'd end up. Face in the dust, humiliated all the more for having tried. So pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that! We're not going to let that happen, either of us. We're going to show those bums, we're going to make 'em choke on our continued success. Our continued headlines! Our continued awards! And power! And glory! We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!
Well, Shakespearean history isn't big-H History, of course, and we shouldn't expect Frost/Nixon to be either. Yet we do, somehow. That the movie is framed as an early-1980s documentary (why?) doesn't help. And because of its pretense of veracity, the film's success has probably warped our collective memory for a generation or so.
Here's something closer to the truth: David Frost was between jobs, but widely respected as a intellectual talent who would give Nixon a run for his money. He did not, in point of fact, wrangle any significant confessions from Nixon; the movie implies he did only by carefully cutting and splicing the interview transcripts. Nixon used the interviews, and a meticulously fine-tuned expression of confession-free regret, to set the stage for the partial rehabilitation of his reputation, an entirely remarkable achievement of public relations executed against overwhelming odds. Both men gained enormously from the interviews. And both men laughed all the way to the bank (Nixon got a substantial cut of the net, something the movie interestingly leaves out of its long treatment of the contract negotiations).
A few rankling details: In this movie about two men and their male advisors, I wince at the inclusion of The Girlfriend, a character whose frail narrative purpose is to demonstrate Frost's charm but who mostly just wanders around looking pretty. Similarly pointless is Kevin Bacon's character as Nixon's chief of staff, played rather ridiculously as a fawning Smithers to Nixon's Mr. Burns. Shakespeare would have at least made these minor characters proper bumpkins and given them some naughty puns and pratfalls.
Prognosis: * * *
Seized by a sudden desire to give stars, I'll give it 3 out of 4. Worth watching, but have some handwork ready for the slow bits. And although it's possible it might tell you something True, don't assume it's telling you anything true.