Posted on April 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 5, 2008

More than 30 years after he resigned from office, Richard M. Nixon has transcended politics and history and become epic. He has been portrayed on film by Anthony Hopkins, the man who won an Oscar playing Hannibal the Cannibal. And his trip to China has been the subject of an opera, the art form most suited for larger-than-life stories of melodrama and scope. Nixon is like a Shakespearean character, the ability and ambition and the tragic flaws of Richard III, Lear, or Othello.

No one work of art or history will ever contain this man of extraordinary contradictions, but in one of this year’s best films, based on the Tony award-winning play, writer Peter Morgan, director Ron Howard, and actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take a pivotal moment in Nixon’s life and make it into a gripping story of the craving of two very different men for power and acceptance and how it plays into a contest of wit and will that becomes a larger story of accountability and meaning.

Richard Nixon was all but exiled to his house on the ocean in San Clemente following his resignation from the Presidency in 1974, relegated to working on his memoirs and finding excuses not to play golf. British broadcaster David Frost was also in a kind of an exile following cancellation of his New York-based talk show, relegated to lightweight celebrity interviews and presiding over televised stunts. Both were desperate for a way to get back into a position of influence. Frost proposed a series of interviews, even though he had no background as a journalist or historian. And Nixon accepted, in part because Frost had not background as a journalist or historian and in part because he would get paid $600,000 and a percentage of the profits. Negotiated by uber-agent Swifty Lazar (a shrewd Toby Jones) and widely criticized as “checkbook journalism,” the payment may have been unorthodox but it was most likely one of the most important factors in eliciting the unprecedented level of candor from the former President, not because of the incentives but because it shifted the balance of power from the subject to the interviewer.

It was also a stunning example of the precise conflict at the heart of so many of Nixon’s failures — his desperate need for approval. He accepted the interview as a way to try to regain his reputation as an elder statesman and remind America of his accomplishments and value. But once again, as it did in 1960 in the first televised Presidential debate, he was defeated by television, but what a character refers to as the power of the close-up. In yet another of this film’s infinite regression of paradoxes, the close-up that most exposes Nixon comes closest to creating sympathy for him. It is one thing to read about the evasions and cover-ups and corruption. It is another to see his face, the desperation, the soul-destroying awareness of how far he was from what he wanted to be.

Staged like a boxing match between the aging champ and the upstart, Howard and Morgan show us the combatants in training, sparring, retreating to their corners for some splashes of water, and then back into it, each going for the knock-out punch. They manage to create sympathy for both men without any shyness about their flaws. Both have some monstrous qualities but neither is a monster.

Sheen and Langella, after months performing together on stage, fully inhabit the roles and are exquisitely attuned to each other. Langella has the more showy character, but Sheen is every bit as precise. Watch the way he orders his lunch. In a millisecond he conveys all of his skills and all of his vulnerabilities. Even in the middle of an important conversation with his producer he stops and gives his full attention to the person behind the counter at the cafeteria and he orders in a way that perfectly demonstrates his charm, his showy self-deprecation, and his need to be noticed and approved of by every person on the planet.

And then there is Nixon, that infinitely interesting jumble of contradictions. Langella shows us his glimmers of self-awareness that cannot add up to meaningful insight. Morgan has taken the privilege of a writer to make it truthful without being accurate in every detail. For one thing, it has better dialogue. Morgan’s “The Queen” was another story of politics, celebrity, history, and conflict between two strong public characters (the younger one played by Michael Sheen) . As he did there, his selection of the elements of the story he wants to highlight and explore allows him to make this men not just historical figures but symbols of duality and contradiction and ultimately to deliver some over-arching messages about what it means to be human.

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Based on a television show Based on a true story Biography Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

6 Replies to “Frost/Nixon”

  1. JoJo, please review this blog’s rules for posting comments. Insults are not arguments. If you have a question, concern, or criticism I am glad to hear it and respond.
    But I have no tolerance for bad manners and it is important to me that everyone feel that this is a safe place to ask questions and express views. You are more than welcome to disagree, but no one will be allowed to be disagreeable, hostile, or rude and I will delete any comments I consider inappropriate. “Why do you think that?” is fine. Corrections are appreciated. But insults of any kind are not permissible. That includes questioning anyone’s motives or the legitimacy of their views.
    What is it you are looking for that you are not finding here? What would your ideal review say? So far, the comments you have posted have not met the standard you appear to be defending.

  2. Dear Nell,
    I have written to you in the past with concerns about how you rate appropriateness of films for young people. In this case, I am glad that I took my 14 year old high school freshman daughter to see Frost/Nixon today. She says Richard Nixon is never discussed in her schoolwork, and she considered him ancient history. We prepped her by doing two things: (1) watching All the President’s Men with her, prompted by your suggestion, so she could understand in part what Nixon had done; and (2)I warned her that I knew this film would have very strong language—but I thought the educational value of this film would far outweigh the language she would hear, which she knows we strongly disapprove of. Further, she understands that the day we hear her using such language is the day we stop taking her to any movies that aren’t rated G.
    I am glad we took her—the movie was very well acted, well written, and exposed her to concepts about politics and personality that she never would have gleaned from a textbook or classroom discussion. For other parents, to my mind, there was no sexual language or visuals per se, scant swearing except for a few Nixon episodes—the offensive part was Nixon dropping the f-bomb a few times, and it only made him look worse. It was much tamer than I expected; and far cleaner and less sex-oriented than most PG-13s . Nell, thanks for the review!

  3. Thanks for a great comment, Colleen. I am especially glad to hear about the time you took to give your daughter some background so she would understand the film. And what you said to her about language was exactly what we told our kids. And it worked!

  4. My stepbrother saw this and was wondering the same thing I am. The phone call to the hotel room, was that really Nixon calling or not?
    This is a good history lesson. I guess the intent was to be realistic with using some of the language but I didn’t think it was needed.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to see this win best picture for 2008.

  5. Thanks, Mike! I attended a special screening of the film that included a discussion with the screenwriter and director as well as the journalist portrayed in the film by Sam Rockwell. The screenwriter, Peter Morgan, said that the phone call did not occur in real life. However, many people did receive middle-of-the-night calls from Nixon after he had been drinking. So Morgan felt that it was not pushing history too far to use that device to encapsulate and dramatize the power struggle between the two characters.
    He made another point I thought was interesting when he said that with both this film and his previous one, “The Queen,” he was disturbed that audiences felt a sympathy for his characters that he was not inviting or expressing. But I think that the very point he makes at the end of the film about the power of the close-up to transcend all of our intellectual reservations about someone is the reason for that. It is a tribute to his skill as a writer that he cannot help but make us understand these characters better, and understanding always leads to empathy.
    The language is disturbing, but in a way that is a part of the point he is making. And as you said, that is historically accurate.
    Thanks for writing and I hope you will return often to let me know what you think about the movies you see.

Comments are closed.

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