by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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After a week of political undoing in Illinois, it’s so ironic that a movie about an American President’s eventual resignation after calls for his impeachment opened in Chicago. There couldn’t be two more clever men than David Frost and former President Richard Milhous Nixon as portrayed in Frost/Nixon.
The first part of the movie chronicles the negotiation around and subsequent filming of Frost’s interviews of Nixon that shed a probing light upon Nixon’s resignation as 37th president amid the controversy around the Watergate break-in. The interviews were adapted into an award-winning stage play and now a major motion picture, directed by Ron Howard.
Frost/Nixon revisits the time of Nixon’s resignation and subsequent pardon by President Gerald Ford, which meant that Nixon, who died from a stroke in 1994, never had to atone or answer questions surrounding the Watergate break-in.
But the country needed closure, and this is where Frost and his crew thought they could prevail in Presidential politics, where some of Nixon’s crew are accused on breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters in 1972, in the Watergate office building.
Nixon was forced from office in 1974, but he just didn’t seem to understand or accept what he had done wrong, since he would go on and on about his many Presidential accomplishments. He complained about “retirement” and being forced to wear a golf uniform while living at his San Clemente, California mansion.
Tapes of White House conversations would have shed light on the eventual cover-up and Nixon’s knowledge of the occurrence. But sections of the tapes were conveniently erased—about 18 and a half minutes’ worth. Nixon had never fully explained this gap, and Frost and his crew of reporters figured they’d secure an interview with Nixon, and use the opportunity to basically try him before the viewing audience.
Nixon agreeing to be interviewed by Frost was as calculating a decision, I suppose, as the Watergate scandal itself. Not many people put credence in Frost, who had once been a big New York talk show host, among other things. He bragged that he had been a regular at Sardi’s in New York and lamented, as he begged for financial backing for his interviews, that success in America was the greatest achievement ever for him.
Nixon had been basically reduced to the lecture circuit, which he compared to being a trained monkey, and the bounty secured by Frost would greatly enhance his finances. Nixon was paid $600,000 for the interview sessions, with Frost all along trying to figure out how he’d pull it all off. Not one broadcast station would option for the interviews, as the media shunned what they called “checkbook journalism.” Frost had to secure backing for syndication on his own. Even his production crew, including executive director Bob Zelnick, played by Oliver Platt, and journalist James Reston, Jr., played by Sam Rockwell, weren’t confident in his capacity to “outwit” the great “stonewaller” that Nixon had become. Frost had enjoyed a reputation as a womanizing, party-throwing, lightweight, lecture circuit correspondent, and Nixon thought this would ensure him an easy interview.
There are no previews of the final questions, just some agreed-upon rules regarding how much time could be committed to Watergate, a mere 25 percent. After the first scheduled interview, Frost would take a beating, as Nixon cleverly grandstands on questions, effectively “talking the clock away” with insignificant ramblings about certain events. Could Frost persevere and achieve what he ultimately sought—an admission by Nixon that his cover-up and/or involvement in the Watergate cover-up were, in fact, illegal? A quote from Nixon near the end of the interviews is just baffling and kind of speaks to the present political climate, and how politicians might feel above reproach in their actions.
As it turns out, Watergate was such a notable case of government corruption and abuse of Presidential power that “gate” has become known as the suffix for situations, particularly those of a political nature, that become out of hand and are thrust to the forefront for public scrutiny.
Frank Langella as Nixon is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, in his portrayal as “tricky Dick.” English actor Michael Sheen as Frost is very compelling; with a strong, albeit small role for Kate Jennings Grant as journalist Diane Sawyer; as well as Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s former Chief of Staff .
Frost/Nixon is a great presentation of historical events, even though some parts near the end reportedly aren’t true depictions. But the movie had me rooting for Frost to lay it on Nixon, although the interviews were more of an interrogation, and they wouldn’t change a thing in the annals of history; but it was good to see Nixon finally reduced to less than a “rat’s ass.”
There’s more than a small amount of time dedicated to Nixon’s disdain for Italian leather loafers. As well, his obvious disapproval of interracial relationships is shown on his smug face, when he learns that Frost was once engaged to Diahann Carroll.
It seemed unfathomable that a British talk show host would be successful in bringing an ex-American president to his knees. But in the end, the sessions were financially successful and gave Frost a renewed celebrity, while forcing Nixon to confront the truth, after having skirted for so long. And I’m sure current political scandals have far more wretched implications, but the Frost/Nixon interviews proved to be such a compelling Nixon character study.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.
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