Frost/Nixon: Rocky for intellectuals

So what if Peter Morgan plays loose with the facts? He has produced that rare thing: a thrilling political drama.

Rob Lyons

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Peter Morgan is a screenwriting vampire on history. He specialises in taking a selective approach to real events, adding a sprinkling of dramatic licence, and creating interesting films that almost invariably revolve around a single, pivotal relationship.

After his television portrayal of the early days of Blair, Brown and New Labour, The Deal, his take on the behind-the-scenes politics of Princess Diana’s funeral, The Queen (Queen Elizabeth versus Tony Blair) and his adaptation of The Last King of Scotland (fictionalised Scottish doctor is befriended, then turned on, by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin), Morgan has now adapted his stage play of Frost/Nixon for the big screen.

No prizes for guessing what the central relationship is in this one. It’s 1977, in the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States and his subsequent pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. A fading chat-show host, David Frost (played by Michael Sheen, a favourite of Morgan’s), gambles that landing an exclusive series of interviews with Nixon (Frank Langella) will be his way back to the big time. At first, Nixon shows disinterest. Why would he allow himself to be interviewed by such a lightweight Brit when heavyweight newscasters at home are courting him? But Frost throws an obscene amount of money at Nixon (roughly £5million at today’s prices) and manages to persuade him.

For Nixon, this is the opportunity to rehabilitate himself, get his side of the story across and put a positive spin on it. Stuck in retirement in sunny California, Nixon sees the Frost interviews as his ticket back east to where the ‘real action’ is. His team quickly realises that it is Frost’s superficiality that offers their man an easy ride to make his case; Frost is accustomed to chatting up celebrities, not nailing infamous political crooks. When Frost first proposes the idea to his friend and producer, John Birt (later boss of the BBC), Birt is incredulous: ‘You’re a talk show host. I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees!’

For Frost, the whole idea is an almighty gamble. Firstly, there is every chance he will be out of his depth against Nixon. Secondly, in order to find the money he has offered to Nixon, he has to go cap in hand to every contact he ever made, especially after the US television networks shun his idea. If the interviews turn out to be a failure, he will be practically penniless. Thirdly, the interviews will absorb a year of his life, making them a major distraction from his chat shows. Already, he has lost his American show; to lose his British and Australian shows would finish him.

Thus, Morgan sets up a two-hander between Frost and Nixon with each side knowing that everything rests on the outcome of the interviews. Morgan described the play as ‘an intellectual Rocky‘ and the film continues the theme. Pugilistic metaphors are never far away. After the first disastrous interview (from Frost’s point of view), Nixon’s adviser Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) can only smile at the puncturing of Frost’s ego, comparing their exchanges to an uppity challenger feeling the heavy weight of the champion’s punch for the first time.

Unlike so many successful plays, the story benefits from the transfer to the big screen. In one respect, it allows the backstory to be expanded. And the close-ups in the interview scenes match the look of the original interviews and allow much more meaning to be conveyed in the characters’ expressions. Langella is excellent as Nixon, while Sheen’s performance as Frost is as convincing an impression as his turns as Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen. And this is director Ron Howard’s best film since Apollo 13.

There are plenty of factual liberties taken along the way. While Frost is no great intellectual heavyweight, his portrayal as a mere chat-show host ignores his central role in British political satire in the 1960s with era-defining shows like That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report. Interviewing Nixon was a world away from the fluff he had taken to presenting (though his greatest televisual crime, the celeb home show Through the Keyhole, was yet to come), but he did have a good grasp of political life and had done big political interviews before – including Nixon as a presidential candidate in 1968. Frost himself, while a fan of the play and film, has been keen to point out that he was not in such dire straits, career-wise, in 1977, as Morgan would have us believe.

There are also problems with seeing past events through a modern, artistic lens. The film presents the interviews as an exercise in national therapy. America, we are told, was denied a criminal trial of Nixon. The Frost interviews became a means of closure. They may well have been absorbing television, but should such modern notions be projected back on to the 1970s? There is also the effect of veracity on the story’s impact. Morgan is clearly fascinated by real historical events, knowing the piquancy that ‘based on a true story’ can add to a movie. But these events are heavily mythologised, too. In the end, does knowing that the ‘true story’ isn’t really true undermine the whole effect? This isn’t history; this is a fiction where any coincidence between the characters and real persons happens to be entirely intentional.

Whatever the truth, Frost/Nixon is gripping and frequently very funny. There is genuine tension over whether Frost will let this ogre – responsible not just for Watergate but also for the carpet-bombing of Cambodia – off the hook. This is skilfully mixed with humour as Frost squirms, incapable of controlling his seasoned opponent in their first exchanges. The film boasts an excellent cast, with Sheen and Langella getting lively support from Bacon, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Rockwell. And if, back in the 1970s, Frost was attracting women as beautiful as Rebecca Hall, who plays his love interest Caroline Cushing, he most definitely goes up in my estimation. There was me thinking he was just some unctuous old interviewer who was responsible for foisting Loyd Grossman upon the world…

If Frost is convincingly presented as a Seventies playboy, the film’s real achievement is to take us inside the cold, smart, paranoid mind of Richard Nixon, a man who was twice elected president, in 1968 and 1972, yet who was even more despised than George W Bush is today. As the film reminds us, he could easily have reached the White House in 1960 but for his underestimation of the televised debate. (Imagine American history with no JFK as president.) Morgan resists the urge to portray Nixon as a monster. Instead, Nixon is treated rather sympathetically, as a man embittered because he was never accepted by the establishment, despite his considerable achievements, especially in improving relations with the Soviet Union and China.

Frost/Nixon is a classic story of triumphing against the odds, of someone having the sheer nerve to succeed when no one believes it to be possible. So perhaps the comparison with Rocky is a flawed one. Rocky lost.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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