December 26, 2008

Taking It Home: Frost/Nixon

Richard Nixon faces his challenger after the heavyweight bout...

I had a troubling thought while watching Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, the film based on the play based on the infamous interviews between British TV host David Frost and former U.S. President Richard Milhouse Nixon. Though I haven't seen Peter Morgan's play (the original Broadway version of which, like the movie, also starred Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon, respectively), the medium of film doesn't appear to add much to the story behind "the trial Nixon never had". Nevertheless, I found myself riveted during the back-and-forth between the desperately ambitious interviewer and the desperately anxious president. Taken on its own, Frost/Nixon is thus a thoroughly engaging look into Nixon's most public attempt at redemption.

Which brings me back to that troubling thought: I realized an active imagination wasn't necessary to picture other U.S. presidents sitting in Nixon's chair, mumbling their veiled apologies like a little boy scolded after pushing his sister into the mud.

It must be a strange experience to be a head of state. The public (and/or the media) strips you of most human characteristics, like feelings and emotions, which of course makes you extremely vulnerable to personal attacks on your feelings and emotions. Some presidents were much better than others at hiding their wounds, but Nixon didn't appear to be one of them with his sweaty upper lip, his scowls disguised as smiles, and his disparaging remarks about his critics (often behind closed doors, which accelerated his downfall and has continued to haunt him over a decade after his death).

There's a temptation, actually, to consider the argument that Nixon's legacy was not defined by his policies but by his personality. After all, he was hardly the only president embroiled in controversy. Unlike our last two presidents, however, he was utterly pathetic at explaining his way out of it. Bill Clinton could charm his way out of a torture chamber if necessary, while George Bush doesn't seem to take anything seriously enough for us to expect him to carry on mature conversations, much less give logical excuses for his mistakes (a particular scene in W. comes to mind).

How would Clinton and Bush have fared against David Frost (or his contemporary version, Ryan Seacrest)? I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about considering their shameful brotherhood. Yes, Clinton's transgressions were significantly more personal than Bush's bad deeds, but the point is that both left office with some owning up to do (and it should not not be forgotten that like Nixon, Clinton also faced impeachment). So we've had three presidents in a span of 30 years that, depending on who you ask, betrayed the oath of the country's highest office. Isn't it ironic?

Maybe not. Despite our best efforts to make them otherwise, these men have all been fallible humans like you and me. Their mistakes play out on a much bigger stage and their actions are analyzed like so many tabloid stars of the moment. They screw things up royally every now and then, and sometimes people die.

It's reason enough to make you protest, vote, or run for office yourself. You think somebody must be able to do a better job, despite so much evidence to the contrary (name me an honest politician and I'll name you two facing trial). Am I that cynical? No, not really. To the contrary, I'll be excitedly attending the inauguration of our 44th president in less than a month. There is a large serving of hope on my plate, but I've always found it goes well with a warm side of hesitancy, and after Frost/Nixon I have little reason to think otherwise.

What did you take home?


  1. I didn't read this because I haven't seen the movie, but I'm sure it's fantastic. Do you know if this will ever be playing anywhere other than Southdale ? I don't understand what the deal is. Also good luck at the craps tables.

  2. I took home two great performances, an infectious and intriguing Peter morgan script and a riveting portrait of interviews that today remain the defining accomplishment of an iconic talk-show host. This challenges for a ten-best of the year birth, and will at least make the runner-up list, regardless of what I (and just about everyone else) thinks of Ron Howard. Your own observations were quite interesting. Have a great in-between holidays weekend!

  3. It's a weird AMC Select situation at Southdale where they have some weird exclusive engagement. I think it's headed to Edina soon, which isn't really any better in terms of convenience. The nice thing about Southdale is that it's only $5 Mon-Thurs anytime, though.

    Thanks, Sam, and Happy New Year!

  4. I took home that I -

    Wait a sec. Seacrest = today's Frost? Ouch for Frost. Can't he at least get maybe a Craig Ferguson nod? Seems more apt given the accents anyhow...

  5. Count me with Fletch ... Seacrest and Frost? Poor Seacrest ...

  6. Hehe, well ignoring the accent, I was thinking about a celebritized TV host who's become famous for doing nothing of value to date, somebody you would absolutely not believe would get a chance for a hard-hitting interview with a former president. At least that was what I understood of Frost's reputation prior to the interviews. I say Seacrest fits the bill.

  7. Personally, I love the analogy of Frost to Seacrest and I find it entirely appropriate. I'm old enough to remember Frost's heyday when his signature question in celebrity interviews was "What is your definition of love?"

    Like you, Daniel, I was riveted by the film, but I came away feeling a little disquieted, mainly because the dramatic significance given to the interviews doesn't in quite match my personal recollection of them when they were first aired.

  8. Haha, it'd have been funny for him to pose that question to Nixon, Pat.

    If I understand you correctly, the reenactments of the interviews were much more theatrical than the interviews themselves? Not surprising, especially coming from Ron Howard. This is the same guy who attempted to make a gripping, emotionally walloping film about a mathematical genius.

  9. Yes, Daniel - that's exactly what I'm getting at.

    You can see clips from the actual interviews at

    Let's just say Nixon could have used some dramatic coaching from Frankk Langella.

  10. Haha, right. Actually that gets to something that's been eating at me since the first trailer I saw for F/N: what is with Langella's voice?

    I know he did it on Broadway as well, and it doesn't seem like ANYONE else I've met has had any problem with it, but if you ask me, Langella sounds like he's trying to speak with a British accent while simultaneously choking on his jowls. The "not illegal" line comes to mind.

    I wasn't alive when Nixon was in office, but in all the recordings I've ever heard of him (including those interviews - thanks), I've never heard his voice as extreme as Langella's. Not sure why Langella's inflection couldn't have been toned down a bit. It was very distracting for me.

    On the flip side, Sheen seems to have nailed Frost.


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