frost-nixonAdapted from Peter Morgan’s stage play, Frost/Nixon sets itself up as a boxing match between the hulking intellect of America’s most notorious ex-president, four years after the Watergate scandal came to a head, and the “lightweight” talkshow host David Frost, who stakes his whole reputation as well as his entire savings on extracting the confession Nixon never gave.

The film presents a somewhat fictionalised account of the famous 1977 interviews and their build up, mostly from the perspective of David Frost (Michael Sheen). The film starts with a mini history lesson of television clips and flashbacks concerning the Watergate scandal. We are then plunged into Frost’s world of bright lights and shiny suits, parties, girls and boldly wallpapered hotel rooms. For all the razzmatazz surrounding him, Frost is derided by the industry for even presuming to interview such a political heavyweight as Nixon, and is seen as naive, boastful and lacking in both intellect and political savvy.

He certainly lives up to his reputation during the early stages of the interviews, as Nixon (Frank Langella) dodges his feeble punches, is allowed to dwell far too long on his successes, and indulges in long-winded anecdotes to pass the time. Where Frost is nervy and uncertain, Nixon responds with assuredness and vigour. He won’t be beaten, even over Cambodia and Vietnam. Frost’s producer, John Birt (Matthew McFayden), is despairing; his researchers threaten to leave.

Then, after a fictionalised scene in which Nixon confesses his insecurities during a drunken phone call, Frost suddenly springs into action, bombarding his adversary with questions and newly dug-up evidence of scandal to extract his coveted confession.

The film suggests that, in spite of the obvious financial benefits (Frost paid Nixon $600,000 from his own pocket for the interviews), Nixon accepted Frost’s offer because he needed to confess, to unburden himself and move on. Frost acts as a foil for Nixon, lifting the lid on his buried insecurities. Whereas Nixon is despised, Frost is popular. Where he is withdrawn, his opponent is easygoing, not weighed down by responsibility or guilt or moral hang-ups. Tellingly, Nixon confides that he would do anything to attend a party and enjoy it.

However, the two men are crudely painted, and never quite escape their stage origins. Michael Sheen’s Frost is a sycophantic fool with more than a streak of Tony Blair in him. Having gone to Cambridge one would assume he’s quite clever, but the film is at pains to stress that political interviews are out of his league. Nixon, meanwhile, is an avaricious bully who resorts to playground tactics to bring down his opponents. “Did you fornicate last night?” he asks Frost, seconds before going on air.

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