Reviews

Frost/Nixon

No matter Frost/Nixon's efforts to revise it, history will never be the same.


Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2009-01-23 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-12-05 (Limited release)
Website
Watergate is the only crisis that ever got me down... And I know I will never live to see the vindication.

-- Pat Nixon, in Julie Nixon, Eisenhower (1986)

The creepiest, most jarring and perversely appropriate aspect of Frost/Nixon is the casting of Patty McCormack as Pat Nixon. She has precious few minutes on screen, but the fact that McCormack remains most famous for her very-scary-girl role in The Bad Seed only underlines the role Pat plays here -- a ghostly, taut-faced, plainly pained reminder of how very wrong the Nixon presidency went. She also intimates the ways that media create and reshape history and memory, their construction of truths that are always-already receding.

All that said, Pat Nixon is singular in Ron Howard's film, which is less interested in digging into all this mess than in cleaning it up. The plot, such as it is, follows the seeming collision course charted by Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) , as both sought to recapture former glories, recolor their professional histories, or -- at least -- regain a pretense of control over their media images. That both settled on television as the means to their very different recuperations is telling and frankly, extremely interesting. Though Nixon's bad experiences with the medium are notorious (from the sweaty debate of 1960 to the awkward "Sock it to me" on Laugh-In in 1968), he nonetheless works it out with his handlers here, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), imagining that the appearance with Frost will allow him to retell the case, proclaim his innocence, and generate an archiveable legacy that might extend beyond the odious Oval Office tapes. As his Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) puts it, Frost is so weak an adversary (all press, even celebrity versions, are enemies for the Nixon camp) Frost will be easy. "It'll be a big wet kiss," he promises, because the interviewer will "pitch puffballs all night long."

The film paints Frost as having a similar, if less momentous, problem, that he has lost his erstwhile pop-cultural clout (he's currently hosting the proto-reality show Great Escapes in Australia, a sign of his exile and his tremendous desire to flee that purgatory and return to prominence and something like industry "respect"). He finances the interviews himself, with money cobbled together from private donors and then self-syndicates because no U.S. network will buy them, a process the film renders in standard montagey form, so as to suggest the difficulty but not spend too much time on the politics of television, obviously based on bottom lines but also, in news bureaus, considering future access and burned bridges. When at last Frost attains cash, crew, and subject, the film descends into an even less compelling back-and-forth between the teams, with the winner ostensibly holding sway over history, reality, and public opinion, here all amounting to the same thing.

The opponents are sketched briefly as they approach one another. ABC reporter Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) notes that those citizens frustrated by the pardon found an unlikely hero in the seemingly hapless Frost, who had never even voted, but "understood television." Frost's apparent good-guyness is bolstered when he meets the lovely Caroline (Rebecca Hall) on the flight to California. Though comments are made repeatedly concerning his parting and womanizing, these two couple up on the plane and then stick together for the duration of the interviews, granting Frost a very pretty someone in whom to confide his self-doubts and share his ambitions.

For his part, Nixon is reviled pretty much across the board. Zelnick sums up the rage against the pardon granted Nixon ("The man who committed the greatest political felony in American history [escaped] out the back door") while author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) declares that though he'd written four books about Nixon, he still doesn’t "know him"). The exception to the haters is Jack, who sees in Frost and his wifty compatriots all his own bad experiences. Remembering Nixon leaving the White House for the last time, he's almost misty before he turns brutal: "I remember his face staring out the window," Jack says in one of the film's many talking-heads spots, awkward confessionals where players are named and tagged. "Liberal America cheered gloated, the same people who spit on me when I got back from Vietnam. They'd gotten rid of Richard Nixon, their boogieman."

With the sides established, the film sets to the business of the interviews, staged as veritable "matches," the camera cutting from one player to the other, split-screening to show, say, Frost himself as a blur and his television monitor image clear, or some other permutation of this aesthetic choice. The effect is gimmicky, the focus on the show business of the interviews obvious but not profound. Yes, they both play to an imagined audience of millions, and yes, their verbal sparring is alternately clever and aggressive. When at last the film offers up one big drama moment -- Nixon's drunken phone call to Frost one late night before the last of the four interview sessions -- the close-ups give both men chances to hide and disclose at the same time, their faces large as the camera swings around them.

What’s missing, however, is a sense of what was—and is—at stake. While the Frost team waits eagerly for a slip that Frost engineers by deft questioning, an admission that Nixon overstepped or lied, the film treats their anticipation as if they are spectators at a sports match (or, your on-screen stand-ins for this handsome spectacle). The actual effects of Nixon’s administration’s corruptions—and they are many and lasting—are reduced to a couple of references to secret war-making and dissembling about reasons for war, as well as statements concerning the importance of making the truth visible, of setting records straight. What the movie misses in this excellent idealism is the politics of the interviews, the changes in today’s social and moral landscapes, the collusions of press and administration that are now presumed by cynical consumers, and the demands for superficial patriotism. If journalism seemed heroic in 1974 (following Woodward and Bernstein), current “news” tends toward entertainment, much as Frost did then. No matter Frost/Nixon‘s efforts to revise it, history will never be the same.

5


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.