If secret tapes surfaced from the pitch meeting for Frost/Nixon, would they sound something like this?
"OK, picture this. How 'bout we do a movie all about a series of TV interviews? Hours of them—from 1977! The lead characters mainly sit and talk. And when things really heat up, they fidget!"
For those who rate their movies by the number of stuntmen they employ, Frost/Nixon carries a less-than-compelling premise. But when the original interviews between British personality David Frost and former president Richard Nixon aired in 1977, it was must-see-TV. More than 45 million people in the U.S. watched Frost and Nixon lob verbal volleys at each other during four 90-minute telecasts—interviews that climaxed with Nixon giving something close to an apology.
"I let the American people down," Nixon says, recalling the disgrace that was Watergate. "And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In the film Frost/Nixon, the former president isn't initially interested in saying "I'm sorry." He's out to rehabilitate his image and make yet another political comeback. He wants to "remind people the Nixon years weren't all bad." His advisors suggest that talking with Frost—an amiable English talk show host—seemed like just the ticket.
"Doing it with Frost would be a lot better than doing it with Mike Wallace," Nixon's agent, Swifty Lazar, tells him. The fact that Frost is willing to pay Nixon $600,000 for his time doesn't hurt, either.
Frost's motivations are no less selfish. He knows the talk with Nixon—the first in-depth interview with the guy since he resigned—would make compelling theater. He's not looking for justice. He's focused on a ratings bonanza. Why? He wants his table back at New York's toniest restaurant.
The scenario is not win/win. Most of America sees the interviews as, in the words of one of Frost's associates, the trial Nixon never got. For Frost to win his table, he must nail Nixon and get a conviction. For Nixon to rehabilitate himself, he's got to earn an acquittal. Though each smiles and shakes hands at the beginning of every session, neither see the interviews as anything less than a battle of will and wit.
"And I shall be your fiercest adversary," Nixon says. "I shall come at you with everything I've got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it'll be the wilderness."
Who would've thought that Nixon—that disgraced symbol of unfettered power and squalid corruption—would wind up being the film's most sympathetic character?
Granted, Nixon isn't exactly likable here. But he comes to embody a curious sort of honor. When the interviews go south for the former president and he appears to be on the brink of confessing ... something ... an aide pulls him aside to ask if he really wants to go forward. Nixon thanks him for the gesture but shakes off the advice. "To go on denying it forever ..." he says, trailing off.
He faces Frost, his questions and the camera with a palpable sense of pathos and a hint of relief. When the interviews are done, he no longer holds out hope for a comeback. The limelight belongs to Frost, and Nixon will spend much of the rest of his life in his prophesied wilderness. Yet when Frost visits Nixon's California home to say good-bye, Nixon greets him with grace and even affection.
"I can't imagine there are many people who won't feel some kind of empathy, if not sympathy, for Nixon," Michael Sheen, who plays Frost, told the Los Angeles Times.
But Sheen goes on to say that "just to humanize someone doesn't excuse them," and many in the film want Nixon brought to some sort of justice—also a worthy goal. And, because Nixon was pardoned, the only apparent avenue for justice is TV. Researchers work relentlessly to achieve these goals and, in the end, Frost himself works through the night meticulously preparing (after spending much of the film attending parties and schmoozing potential sponsors).
One of the interviews touches on a time when Nixon, a Quaker, and the Jewish Henry Kissinger prayed together during Watergate's waning days. Nixon's Quaker upbringing is mentioned a couple of times, and Nixon notes Frost's Methodist background. Frost, instead of saying good-bye, sometimes offers a "God bless" in passing.
A naked women gets out of bed, and audiences briefly see the side of her breast and buttocks. Frost's main squeeze wears revealing dresses with plunging necklines. Playboy bunnies show up at Frost's birthday party. A man runs naked into the ocean; the camera watches from behind him.
Before an interview, Nixon asks Frost whether he had done any "fornicating" the previous night. Nixon also wonders aloud, to Frost, whether Frost's Italian shoes seem just a bit effeminate. A Frost researcher, mimicking Nixon, talks about how John F. Kennedy would have sexual relations "with anything that moved," even making a run at Nixon's famous dog, Checkers.
During an interview, Frost shows Nixon war footage taken in Cambodia, where Nixon launched a secret military offensive. He—and we—see the bodies of dead people and animals, as well as injured civilians.
Crude or Profane Language
Nixon's real-life Watergate tapes are more profane than what makes it into the script of this film. But characters still say the f-word and s-word four or five times apiece, and they misuse God's and Jesus' names. (A handful of times "god" is paired with "d--n.") Audiences also hear "b--ch," "pr--k," "h---" and "bloody." Someone makes mention of an interview "snafu."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Frost smokes cigars. Nixon makes a call to Frost, apparently drunk; he doesn't remember the conversation later. Characters are offered, and accept, champagne.
Other Negative Elements
The film suggests that Nixon has a problem with Frost's relationship with Diahann Carroll (they were engaged, but never married) because Carroll was African-American.
The Frost-Nixon interviews were taped more than 30 years ago. But for some, the story seems strangely current.
The movie is being released following an election season in which celebrity and politics grew evermore enmeshed—a trend that was, perhaps, foreshadowed by these interviews. In 1977, politicians didn't make the rounds to Leno, Letterman and Oprah. They didn't poke fun of themselves on Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. Politicians talked with journalists, not celebrities. But the freewheeling Frost was a little bit of both, and he arguably opened the door for what came later.
And then there are those who suggest that this de facto cinematic trial is wish fulfillment for Americans who believe another unpopular president (George W. Bush's approval ratings are actually lower than Nixon's, post-Watergate) could use a day in public court, too.
"I'm thrilled that it has a contemporary resonance," Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan told The New York Times, "but I'd be perfectly happy if it didn't. I didn't want the Frost/Nixon play to be seen as a metaphor for Bush-Blair. I hate when I'm an audience member and I'm being led."
But the real issues at play here are timeless. Nixon's fall from grace, in some ways, doesn't look that much different from any ordinary Joe's mess-up. You lose something when you make a massive mistake: Sometimes you can lose friends, family, respect. Sometimes, like Nixon, you lose a job. And many grieve those losses more than the actual evil deed that precipitated them. Indeed, Nixon seems to go through the stages of grief even as he sits in the chair an arm's length away from David Frost. Denial. Anger. Depression. Acceptance. They cross his face like shadows—and there's much to learn from each.
And there's this, too: My pastor tells me that when we hit rock bottom—when we know, in a gut-piercing, sob-catching way, that we're deeply unworthy sinners—that's when God can really begin His work with us. And that's when many of us find a curious sense of peace.
The film, which broadcasts intermittent R-rated static, never suggests that Nixon goes through a spiritual renewal. That's not on the table here. But yet, a glimmer of peace can be found in him at the end. It's a peace that comes when there's nowhere else to go but up. And maybe that gives all of our easily impeachable souls some hope.