A disgraced and somewhat humbled former U.S. president and a slightly haughty-seeming British TV journalist are the title characters in Frost/Nixon, a film about one of the most dramatic TV interviews in recent American history Two powerful men (and their teams of representatives and aides) joust for advantage before the cameras roll on the hours-long interview that resulted from the interview, the first for Richard Nixon since leaving the White House in disgrace as he proclaimed “I am not a criminal” to the press corps but refusing to discuss his role in the crimes of the Watergate scandal.
The time of Frost/Nixon is 1977. Politically, much of America has moved on, with an outsider Democrat, President Carter, in the White House and a few years under the bridge to forget about the travails of Watergate.
The former president who quit rather than face impeachment proceedings, Richard Milhous Nixon, was ready to talk about what had happened when he was president and his underlings were caught in crimes ranging from burglary to perjury and more. Nixon chose British journalist David Frost to be his official interviewer, revealing calculated political thinking that had always been Nixon’s way. Nixon, of course, did not exactly have a reputation of being the most TV-friendly president (see: his disastrous 1960 TV debate). But this time he was going to at least nail the hair and makeup part.
Frost may have been seen as something of a TV news lightweight, but he leaned into his role and resolved to take on the cagey former president head-to-head, with cameras rolling. Negotiations ensued over details that were hashed out as if it were to be a major international summit. Questions of where the interview would take place, time and date and duration, and of course, the fee to be paid to the out-of-work politician that ultimately topped out at a heft $600,000 in 1977 value. Not a bad retirement haul for a government worker who may have lost his pension.
Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan (adapting his own stage play) develop the characters and the tension that builds over the weeks of preparation, ultimately climaxing in the days of live questioning that ends up being a six-hour televised interview in real life. Both men lead teams of underlings who bicker and question whether the result will be worth the effort. Each shows his character flaws and strengths as behind the scenes relationships let the viewer into the world of high-stakes tension that is entertainment and politics, both.
Highlighting the struggles and conflicts of the two lead characters, the movie shows a cagey politician ultimately backed into the corner of reality by a dogged interviewer who will not stop asking questions until he hears some sort of acknowledgement of a culpable role in one of America’s most captivating political dramas. And ultimately, Nixon felt that he gave America what it deserved; maybe not an apology, but a statement, an acceptance of a sort, for some responsibility for things that may have gone wrong.