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Everything Was Not As It Was Made to Appear

The Education of David Frost

by BOB SOMMER

The recent opening of Frost/Nixon coincided not only with the holidays but also with the legacy-building tour of President George W. Bush, who’s been scrambling like an undergraduate with a term paper due to paste together something resembling an honorable narrative about his disastrous presidency—quotations, footnotes and all. He got F’s on all the tests. Now the term paper is his last shot.

Among the many parallels between Bush and Nixon—from promoting and escalating unpopular wars to a near sociopathic fear of political opposition and dissent—is their exhaustive effort to create their own legacies, to scoop the historians and fill the space before they get to it (as if this were a real possibility for any president). Bush has the luxury of engineering his effort from the White House. Nixon, no such luck. The public didn’t want to hear from him once he wagged his last V signs from the helicopter door and took off. He was no longer newsworthy, and as a disgraced ex-president, he couldn’t get the kind of interviews he wanted, the Sarah Palin kind, which would have allowed him to ramble on without the “filter of the media”—that is, without the tough questions.

The gentlemanly, piano-playing Merv Griffin might have given Nixon the chance to redeem himself before the public—and Griffin would have paid for the privilege. But then, in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned his office, along came David Frost, the effervescent British dandy of television, offering over $600,000 for a series of now-famous interviews. So far afield was Frost from his mainstay of celebrity interviews and variety entertainment that legitimate news organizations would have nothing to do with him, so he invested personally in the project while scrambling to assemble both a production team and underwriters for the program.

Nixon is much with us in the era of Bush. It’s not too much to say—and I’m not the first to say it—that Bush is a direct descendent of both Nixon’s political tactics and his hubris toward the presidency, a hubris that sometimes resonates with the somber tones of Shakespearean tragedy. Most of the key elements of tragedy are present for both Nixon and Bush. They occupy positions of importance; they’re tragically flawed by pride and arrogance. The hero’s death as a result of his flaw is usually a requirement of tragedy, but the deaths of millions of innocents in wars they waged might easily stand in. Yet neither rises to the standard of Shakespearean tragedy for the simple reason that, unlike Macbeth or Othello or Lear, both Bush and Nixon are individually too small, and too sordid, for heroic stature. They may have been (and one still is) leaders of the free world—but their natures are finally petty, self-absorbed in ways that prevent them from falling from high places because they never really arrived there.

The great heroes of Shakespeare have a level of self-awareness, and self-examination, that is simply beyond the scope of either Nixon or Bush. Such traits lead to the final key element of the tragedy, which is recognition of their own flawed natures. Frost/Nixon opens with fragments of the infamous tapes revealing the level of Nixon’s involvement in the so-called “dirty tricks” of his administration. His nature is revealed as less vengeful than simply vindictive. His concern isn’t for matters of state but for petty, underhanded tactics to destroy his political enemies. The closest we get to an apology from Nixon in the interviews with David Frost comes in the form of the classic political non-apology apology: “I let the American people down”—a phrase that comes not so much from the heart as from prompting by Frost.

Nixon agreed to be interviewed not only for money and to redeem his legacy, but because he also nurtured the faint hope that he might re-enter politics. Self-deluded better describes Nixon than self-aware. King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia—“When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask thee forgiveness.” (V, iii, 10-11)—are nowhere in the galaxy of Nixon’s imagination. Nor Bush’s, for that matter.

Frost’s interviews with Nixon ought to have filled a near-universal American need for catharsis. Indeed, the movie takes for its climactic focus the one moment in which Nixon comes closest to uttering some admission of guilt, but his view of right and wrong—and of the Constitution!—is so distorted that we might almost be willing to grant him an insanity plea: “I’m saying that when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” The potential catharsis of this moment in Frost/Nixon is also flawed by the dramatic liberties of the movie itself, which is based on a successful stage play by Peter Morgan, now brought to the screen by director Ron Howard.

A telling sign that fiction has mixed freely with history was the audience laughter at the viewing I attended, often in response to set-up jokes. Despite an early sequence of newsreel footage of the carnage in Vietnam, the movie lacked a sense of the magnitude of Nixon’s crimes and their consequences—and thus why catharsis mattered. “Docudrama” is by its nature a confusing genre—neither fish nor fowl, and thus lacking either taste or substance. (Maybe tofu is a better analogy.) The high production values that Ron Howard brings to any project seemed almost distracting. Set moments that featured profiles of actor Frank Langella in startling likenesses of Nixon were undercut by dialogue that sometimes descended to mere sit-com punchlines: Nixon asking Frost if he’d been “fornicating,” for instance. Langella did a lot with what he was given, but the essential confusion about what the movie should be had the effect of taking away one thing as soon as it gave another. The story of these interviews told in a pure documentary fashion surely would have merited the kinds of accolades won by Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11.

The central story of this movie is the education of David Frost, an extraordinarily successful television entertainer, but no journalist—though the task, by his own standard, is not journalism but to reach as large an audience as possible and thus vault his career forward. The dramatic movement is toward Frost’s realization that there’s more at stake than ratings—and that he’s been played for a fool by Nixon. Frost has plenty of hubris of his own, dismissing research that his staff assembled at great effort—and more importantly, dismissing their passionate wish—especially James Reston’s—to see Nixon given “the trial he never had,” as Reston says, through a public interrogation. The wounds of Gerald Ford’s unconditional pardon were fresh in 1977, as were the lies, the crimes, and the human cost of Vietnam.

But Frost is not large enough for tragedy either. His moment of self-awareness leads to a more determined effort to succeed in his final interview with Nixon—and the script here borrows from the stock Hollywood rallying effort that leads every underdog sports team, debate team, dancer, singer, and on and on to victory in the climatic scene. Yet it fails to lead Frost toward a fresh determination to raise his career beyond the purely self-serving path it has traveled. And while the movie portrays his finest moment with heroic overtones, it also somewhat speciously offers this as redemption for allowing most of the opportunity—which he created but also failed to recognize for its full value—slip away.

The movie’s inaccuracies can’t be passed over. They were more than distracting; they drained the story of the confidence and satisfaction one might have taken away with a fuller understanding of this fascinating historical moment.

Here are a few keys for viewers:

No, Nixon didn’t drunk-dial Frost in the middle of the night to commiserate over sharing Frost’s fate of always being on the outside: “That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost, that they still look down on us.”—they being the insiders, the cliques, the sons of privilege whose recognition, Nixon presumes, neither of them ever won. It should be said, however, that this scene is Frank Langella’s finest in the movie.

No, James Reston didn’t spend Easter weekend, just days before the Watergate interview, researching the last minute smoking gun of Nixon’s conversation with Charles Colson about the Watergate break-in. He did that work months earlier.

No, the taping was not done in four sessions, and it was not done in the sequence described in the movie. The Watergate sequence alone took four sessions.

No, Jack Brennan did not interrupt the taping when things went south for Nixon. He did attempt to communicate with Frost by holding up a sign, which Frost mistook for a request for a break.

And emphatically no, Nixon did not utter his famous “When the president does it…” line in response to a question about Watergate. That came in another interview and referred to surveillance of political dissenters.

(For more detail on these inaccuracies, interested readers should see Robert Zelnick’s review of the stage play and the timeline of these events at historycommons.org.)

I would not suggest viewers avoid this movie. It has merit and interest, but caveat spectator. Everything was not as it’s made to appear.

BOB SOMMER’s novel, Where the Wind Blew, which tells the story how the past eventually caught up with one former member of a 60s radical group, was released in June 2008 by The Wessex Collective. He blogs at Uncommon Hours.