Film Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon (Howard, 2008) is a film adaptation of the controversial interview of Richard Nixon by a young British Journalist named David Frost. This interview took place immediately following the notorious Watergate Scandal that occurred during Nixon’s presidency. The film, directed by Ron Howard, has many elements of argumentation, including propositions of fact, value, and policy. Laborious, contentious and laden with jargon, Frost/Nixon is as compelling as it is revealing.

Following the resignation of US President ‘Richard Nixon’, television talk show host David Frost wants to arrange a series of interviews with him to air on television. Part of the reason Frost thinks the interviews would be compelling to both the public and the television networks is that Nixon never admitted any guilt of or offered any apology for the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation. Nixon, with a few interview offers on the table, ultimately agrees to Frost’s proposal partly because of the high $600,000 guaranteed appearance fee, and partly because he wants to take command of such an interview to show the world that he is still presidential so that he can resurrect his political career.

Nixon believes he can railroad Frost, who is better known as a pop cultural entertainment styled interviewer than an investigative political interviewer. However, Frost has every intention on these interviews being hard hitting and pointed; in addition to his producer, Frost hires two investigative reporters known for their previous exposés on Nixon: Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. Nixon’s chief adviser for the interviews are his current chief of staff, Jack Brennan. Prior to the interviews, ground rules are negotiated, most importantly surrounding Watergate: the total percentage of time Watergate can be discussed and the definition of what constitutes Watergate.

As the four interviews progress, each side tries to manipulate the interviews to his best advantage. Behind the scenes, Frost is having difficulty with the rest of his professional life: his regular talk shows are being canceled and he has not reached anywhere near the total $2 million financing for this project. Ultimately, Frost has to finance the project with much money out of his own pocket. It isn’t until a chance telephone call that the tides turn on the interviews. (IMDB, 2008)

Monetary gain is the primary motivator and antithesis throughout the four interviews as illustrated in Frost/Nixon. Richard Nixon consistently tests the grounds of the accusations finely crafted in manipulated form by Frost. At one heated moment in the film frost makes a clear accusation, but uses charm and jargon to extract the truth from Nixon. In his interview with former President Richard Nixon, Frost continues from his earlier questioning about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate conspiracy to the events of March 21, 1973. Now that, Nixon’s status as a co-conspirator from the outset has been established, Frost wants to know why Nixon claims not to have known about the illegal aspects of the cover-up, or about the blackmail demands of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, until this date.

Nixon is cautious, claiming only that he learned of Hunt’s blackmail demands on March 21 and refusing to acknowledge that he knew anything about the $400,000 in payouts during the eight months preceding the scandal. (Creative Commons.) Essentially Nixon used a rebuttal that had very little evidence, or backing, to support his claim.

Frost circles back, hoping for a flat confirmation: “So March 21 was the first day you learned about an illegal cover-up?” Nixon carefully says that March 21 was the day he learned of the “full import” of the cover-up, only having heard “smatterings” beforehand and being reassured by the then-White House counsel John Dean that no White House personnel were involved.

Frost continues on, “In that case, why did you say in such strong terms to Charles Colson on February 14, more than a month before; “The cover-up is the main ingredient, that’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal” Nixon’s face betrays his shock. “Why did I say that?” he asks rhetorically, trying to redeem his calm. He fishes around for excuses, quickly settling on media reports at the time that tossed around charges of conspiracies, “hush money” payouts, and promises of executive clemency. That’s all he was referring to in the February 14 conversation, he says: the cover-up itself had to be avoided at all costs. Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “It was an exquisite lie, a superb time warp.”

Only later do Reston and other research team members realize that no such stories had appeared in the media by February 14; in fact, allegations of a cover-up never made it into print until after burglar James McCord wrote his letter to Judge John Sirica on March 19 warning the judge of involvement of “higher-ups” in a conspiracy of silence. No one had written publicly of any executive clemency deals until the subject was broached during the Senate Watergate investigative hearings. But few of the millions who will see the interview will have the grasp of the chronology of events necessary to realize the extent of Nixon’s dishonesty.

Second Colson Bombshell – Frost reminds Nixon of his conversation with Colson of February 13 (see February 13, 1973), the day before, when they had discussed which Nixon official would have to take the fall for Watergate. Former campaign director John Mitchell couldn’t do it, the conversation went, but Nixon wants to know about Mitchell’s former deputy, Jeb Magruder.

“He’s perjured himself, hasn’t he?” Nixon asked Colson. Frost asks Nixon, “So you knew about Magruder’s perjury as early as February the thirteenth?” Nixon bobs his head, talking about events from the year before, how Mitchell and Colson hated each other, how Colson and Ehrlichman hated each other. Frost brings Nixon back on point by reading another quote from the February 13 conversation, where Nixon says “the problem” will come up if “one of the seven begins to talk…” Frost asks, “Now, in that remark, it seems to be that someone running the cover-up couldn’t have expressed it more clearly than that, could he?” Frost wants to know precisely what the phrase “one of the seven begins to talk” means. Nixon argues, but Frost refuses to be distracted. How can it mean anything else except “some sort of conspiracy to stop Hunt from talking about something damaging?” Frost asks. Nixon retorts, “You could state your conclusion, and I’ve stated my views.” (Creative Commons Attribute)

There were times in the movie when it seemed that Frost was going to give up due to the argumentative and manipulative nature of Nixon’s retort. Although the factual claims, or claims that are based on actual proven data, were far too obvious to move the audience in Nixon’s favor. It is difficult to say whether there was actual resolve in the conclusion of the film. The last scene of the movie is set on Nixon’s estate, where Frost had come to pay him a visit and give him a peace offering and try and “clear the air.”

There was still obvious tension between the two men, and Nixon had far too much pride to completely admit his wrongdoings. Yet there was resolve in Frost’s attempt to reconcile and accept that some things in life are best left to karma and that the pursuit of winning is not always as rewarding as the entire experience of the battle. There was a truce of sorts, and both men departed with some semblance of closure.

This film was riveting and rich with information applicable to argumentation. It was a frustrating film to watch, but suspenseful in its vicious rhetoric and phenomenal depiction of true events. There was historical accounts that were well acted and, at times, quite accurate. The context was best exemplified by the nature in which the interviews were illustrated in this exhilarating and challenging film adaptation.

References:

Creative Commons Attribute. Context of ‘April 13, 1977: Interviewer Frost Proves Nixon Lied about Knowledge of Watergate Cover-Up’. Unites States: Creative Commons Attribute.

Howard, R. (Director). (2008). Frost/Nixon [Motion Picture]. United States of America.

IMDB. (2008). Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0870111/plotsummary

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