In an interview with Mike Wallace, David Frost said that he expected Richard Nixon to offer a “cascade of candour” in their much-anticipated post-Watergate television interviews in 1977.
“You expect a cascade of candour… from Richard Nixon?” asks a stupefied Wallace.
“No,” Frost admits, ”I just thought it would appeal to you.”
"Frost/Nixon," a new film directed by Ron Howard and adapted from a play written by Peter Morgan, is all about this electrifying televised showdown between the disgraced president and the British talk-show host. At a preview screening at New York's Paley Center for Media, Howard, Morgan and Brian Grazer, the producer, came to discuss the film. The evening began with this vintage reel of Mr Frost. The clip was quick, ironic and very funny--the perfect opener, revealing the slick, sexy man Mr Frost was in the 1970s.
The film is a rare event in Hollywood: it brings together a handful of brilliant male actors (this is a movie about men, with one very stunning woman), and rests on a powerful script by Morgan (who also wrote "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland"). What had been a modest yet award-winning stage play has been fully realised for the screen in Howard's virtuoso hands. "Frost/Nixon" is perfect drama, beautifully shot.
Morgan had a lot of material to work with. "There were 21 total hours of interviews filmed" in 1977, he told the packed crowd at the Paley. "There are 20 minutes [of actual interview] in 'Frost/Nixon', and perhaps 80% of those are absolutely accurate. I had to make it digestible." Bearing this in mind, the cascade comment is amputated and reattached: in the film, Frost says it instead to a tabloid reporter at a red-carpet premier. The original effect is lost, raising the question of just how much of the story is reimagined.
Frank Langella's Nixon is a god. He's the sort of deity who rules with terrible power and speaks with a voice of thunderclouds. His sadness is deep, perhaps because he knows he will never be comfortable or comforting. This Nixon emerges bruised by these televised exchanges, yet no one wins or loses. In this cinematic take on popular history, Nixon and Frost are uncanny experts of the human soul, and they leave the rest of us in their dust.
Nixon never had the magical embrace of Langella's eyes. The man himself was more of an enigma, dangerous and inscrutable. After the film Pat Mitchell, president of the Paley Center and the evening’s emcee, said "Frank Langella was a better Nixon”. For those of us who never got to know Tricky Dick, Langella's creation might do him a service.
The film captures the power of media to not only tell a story but also influence events. "David understood television,” observes Frost’s producer John Birt in the film (played by Matthew Macfayden).
The last question of the evening was posed to all three men: who are the Frost and Nixon of today? Grazer shook open palms at the presenter and looked away. Peter Morgan was less guarded: "Tina Fey and Sarah Palin," he said. "Tina Fey single-handedly destroyed Sarah Palin, and what she did was far more powerful than what Frost ever accomplished." ~ COLIN BAKER