British broadcaster David Frost, best remembered for his post-Watergate interviews with former US President Richard Nixon, died of a heart-attack on Sunday. Frost secured his broader reputation with the Nixon interviews of 1977, three years after the president retreated into silence after quitting in disgrace.
In those encounters, dramatized in the 2008 film Frost/Nixon (which was itself based on the 2006 play of the same name by Peter Morgan), the British talk-show host sparred with the Nixon for hours before getting the President to apologize for bugging Democratic rivals at Washington’s Watergate building and then later doing a cover-up.
The movie begins with Richard Nixon stepping down after the infamous Watergate scandal and David Frost (more known in India as the presenter of The Guinness Book of World Records) wrapping up an episode of his talk show and watching on television, the resignation of the President. Frost calls up the Nixon team and discusses the possibility of extracting a detailed interview with the President.
The power of the visual medium can never be downplayed and both the players knew it just too well. Nixon owed his Presidential loss to Kennedy primarily to the first general election presidential debate conducted on television – though he scored in the debate on radio, he appeared haggard and sick in front of a young and charismatic JFK on TV and this made all the difference in the close race. Frost enjoyed these situations and truly understood Television and the power of TRPs. He realized that getting the ex-President to confess on TV was an eye ball popping spectacle and the Americans wanted to see that, especially after Nixon escaped through an unconditional pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford.
Nixon’s camp deftly brokers a deal for the interviews for a record prize of $600,000, partly so that he can redeem his reputation by presenting his side to the public and also partly because they reckon that Frost is a lightweight celebrity interviewer and intellectually too inferior to dictate terms. Frost tries to get in networks to finance his deal but he does not make a breakthrough; he, however, decides to go ahead with the deal by putting in a third of the money from his own pockets.
The Interviews are scheduled to be conducted in the form of four 90 minute shows, spread over a period of a few days and covering the following topics –Domestic Affairs, Foreign Policy, Watergate and Nixon the man. Frost hires two investigators, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. to dig for information along with his producer-friend Birt, mainly on the Watergate scandal.
For the Frost camp, it is an uphill task right from when it starts. He is overconfident, greatly under prepared and is more at home being a benign talk show host, interviewing celebrities rather than grilling politicians. He also spends a great deal of time trying to raise funds for the show and focuses less on the research required for the part. Frost’s team grows desperate as Nixon sidetracks Frost, embarks on endless digressions, evades points and falls back on windy anecdotes, almost ridiculing Frost’s assumptions that he would be able to trap the President. He plays mind games with Frost – wondering about the expenses involved in the production, if his shoes aren’t effeminate, whether he did any fornication and more such talk.
In the words of a Nixon aide, “Well, in boxing, you know that there’s always that first moment and you see it in the challenger. It’s that moment that he feels the impact from the champ; it’s a kind of a sickening moment when he realizes that all those months of pep talks and the hype and the psyching yourself up had been delusional all along. You could see it in Frost’s face. If he didn’t know the caliber of the man he was up against before the interview started, he certainly knew it halfway through the president’s first answer.”
This goes on for almost eleven sessions, till the story sets into motion through a drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost where he tells him that they both know the final interview will make or break their careers. If Frost fails to implicate Nixon definitively in the Watergate scandal, then Frost will have allowed Nixon to revive his political career at Frost’s own expense, who will have an unsellable series of interviews and be bankrupt.
This spurs Frost to ensure that the final interview – the Watergate section – is successful. He and Reston do their homework well and the final interview turns out be an almost emotional thriller where Frost pins him down and extracts an admission of guilt, cover up and acting illegally from the President. It is almost extraordinary to hear such comments:
Frost: Are you really saying that whether in certain situations, the President can decide whether it is in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?
Nixon: I’m saying that when the President does it that means it’s not illegal. That’s what I beIieve but I reaIize no one eIse shares that view.
The phone call acts as a turning point in the movie but this is supposedly only a directorial flourish and not an actual event. But to the viewers, it probably presents a concrete reason why these two individuals have gambled their reputations to come together. Nixon is a lonely, embittered man who has been abandoned by the American public and wants reestablish his reputation and exert some control over his tarnished legacy; Frost is a little wannabe playboy type journo who wants to get into the Big League and make a name for himself.
The film does not demonize Nixon; instead it paints him as a man who’s made a historic blunder and knows that he has to live with it for the rest of his life. His redemption, is therefore, only superficial – the millions may look at him in a different light if the interviews are actually successful but the truth is something that is deep inside him. It is quite possible that one of the reasons for him agreeing for the interview is to actually admit his culpability in the crime. Frank Langella is brilliant as a brooding Nixon, who knows that he was once upon the time, the most powerful man in the world, but who is now reduced to an ignominious figure licking his wounds.
In comparison, Frost comes across as a showy but meek journalist who is more of a performer rather than an investigator. He is driven by the idea of creating headlines and is lost in the complex world of political intrigue. He receives a royal hammering for most of the part till he delivers a final knock-out blow in the last recording. Michael Sheen has a flashy presence and is eminently likable but clearly he is No.2 in this rather “unequal contest”.
Historical movies run into trouble when it comes to accuracy of what it is represented on the screen and Frost/Nixon has its fair share of critics, especially those who allege that it overstates the role of the tapes and that the interviews are far too dramatic than they were actually done. The movie does not mention that Nixon received 20 % of the profits from the interviews but this fact does suggest that there was an interest in sexing it up and most of it that Nixon said was probably pre-planned. Nevertheless, cinematic license does allow the interviews to be shown as a David Vs Goliath contest with David pulling off a last minute victory.
After having seen Milk and Frost/Nixon, I am puzzled by what the Oscars and the rest of the West saw in awarding Slumdog Millionaire the Best Film that year? What should have been a straight one-to-one duel between these 2 movies for the top honours was reduced to cakewalk in favour of Slumdog. It’s a pity because most of India had probably not seen these 2 movies at that time, overshadowed by the hype of the Slumdog.
Note- This post was originally written in 2009 and it has been edited and published again now, after hearing the news of David Frost passing away yesterday.