Film / Frost/Nixon

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"When the President does it, it's not illegal."

Frost/Nixon is a 2008 historical drama film based on the play of the same name by Peter Morgan which dramatizes the Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977. The film version was directed by Ron Howard and produced by Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment and Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films for Universal Pictures.

The film reunites its original two stars from the West End and Broadway productions of the play, Michael Sheen as British television journalist/comedian David Frost and Frank Langella as former United States President Richard Nixon.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Nixon is pretty witty throughout.
  • Age Lift: Swifty Lazar was six years older than Richard Nixon but Toby Jones, who plays Swifty, is nearly thirty years younger than Frank Langella, who plays Nixon.
  • Anecdotal Fallacy: Early in the interview session, Frost attempts to trap Nixon by playing graphic video footage of the aftermath of his controversial decision to start dropping bombs in Cambodia. The idea, no doubt, was to guilt Nixon into feeling regret for what happened afterwards note . However, Nixon somehow manages to wiggle out of this by detailing how a Philadelphia construction worker wished that Nixon had gone into Cambodia sooner because it might have avoided the death of his son. It is a masterclass in obfuscation, and Frost's producers and researchers are flabbergasted with how Cambodia somehow can be spun in Nixon's favor.
    Nixon: Whenever I have had my doubts I remembered the construction worker in Philadelphia because he came up to me and he said 'Sir I got only one criticism of that Cambodia thing; if you'd gone in earlier you might've captured the gun that killed my boy three months ago'. So you're asking me do I regret going into Cambodia?... No, I don't. You know what, I wish I'd gone in sooner. And harder!
  • Artistic License History:
    • Ron Howard discusses in the DVD-commentary how he deliberately used dramatic license as the late-night phone call never happened and on the other hand talks about how Nixon's biography includes not so distant episodes.
    • The movie ignores that Frost and Nixon were already well-acquainted: Frost had interviewed Nixon during the '68 Presidential campaign, and Nixon even invited Frost to host his 1970 White House Christmas party. It's certainly true, though, that Nixon and his aides didn't take him or the interviews seriously at first.
  • Berserk Button: Nixon does not like being questioned about Watergate.
  • Big Fancy House: La Casa Pacifica.
  • Break Them by Talking: Richard Nixon attempts to do this to Frost with a late night phone call, but as his drunken ramblings progress, all his lines only reveal how broken and full of self-loathing he is. Frost doesn't need to say Shut Up, Hannibal!- he knows that all he needs to do is corner Nixon and he'll destroy himself.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Reston wants to check out some transcripts at the federal courthouse library. No, waste of time, everyone assures him.note 
  • Despair Event Horizon: In the immediate aftermath of Nixon's catastrophic "If the president does it, that means it's not illegal!" outburst, there is a cut to another room in the house showing Nixon's handlers with absolutely heartbroken/decimated looks on their faces. At that moment, they knew their hopes for President Nixon's complete rehabilitation in the public eye is forever gone.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Jack Brennan threatens to wreck Frost's career if he so much as dares to impugn Nixon's honor.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Inverted. Upon seeing Nixon in person, Reston declares he's taller than he'd imagined. This is because Frank Langella, who plays Nixon, is about five inches taller than the President.
  • From a Certain Point of View: After the interviews, Nixon privately asks David what it was that he and Frost talked about over the phone. Frost replies "Cheeseburgers." This is technically true: The conversation started with Frost and Nixon discussing cheeseburgers (Mostly Nixon lamenting that his poor health prevents him from eating them anymore)...and then the conversation basically ends, because Nixon proceeds to devolve into a paranoid and bitter monologue against any and everyone who has ever wronged him, while Frost could only listen in stunned silence.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Nixon views Frost as a nobody he can manipulate to improve his image. Thanks to this series, Frost became a famous interviewer.
  • Gilligan Cut: Jim bitterly says that he'll never shake the hand of a monster like Nixon. Cue Nixon arriving and Jim being so starstruck he shakes Nixon's hand almost unconsciously.
  • Golden Snitch: Due to the necessity of creating more tension for the dramatization. Unlike what happened in real life, Nixon is in control for three of the four interviews, but Frost's success with the last one determines the whole outcome. This is lampshaded by Reston.
  • Hard Work Montage: Frost after the drunk phone call from Nixon.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Jack Brennan as played by Kevin Bacon is a humorless military man devoted to Nixon, who threatens to ruin Frost if he makes Nixon look bad. In Real Life, Brennan, a former Marine, is known for his kind, friendly personality, with Diane Sawyer noting him as "The funniest guy you'll ever meet". David Frost called him a "delightful man" and had such praise for him and the rest of the Nixon team that he once said if they were his White House staff, the whole Watergate scandal might have been averted because they could have talked Nixon out of it.
    • The portrayal of Brennan hews much closer to H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House chief of staff, who was both unflinchingly devoted to Nixon, and notoriously mean and humorless - he proudly said "I'm the president's son of a bitch." Presumably this comes down to Rule of Drama; making Brennan a nice guy who cooperated with Frost's team wouldn't have provided much tension.
  • Honor Before Reason: Nixon claims this as his reason for not informing authorities of his men's actions, noting he had known them since they were children. He later calls his mistakes "Mistakes of the heart, not of the head".
  • Hypocritical Humor: James Reston, Jr., the researcher who despises Nixon, swears he'll never shake hands with him; he does so moments later, stunned by being face-to-face with an ex-President of the United States. Zelnick wastes absolutely no time in reminding him of that: "Oh, that was devastating. Withering. I don't think he's ever going to get over that." Reston promptly tells him to fuck off.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Nixon's drunk phone call.
  • It's All About Me: Nixon can be like this at times. When answering questions about Vietnam, he frames answers by playing up his own moral strength and turning his decision into a noble self-sacrifice, casting himself as an undeserving victim. Snidely lampshaded by Jim who responds to Nixon's claims of "Being the last casualty of the Vietnam War" with a bitter "Tell that to the amputees".
    • Nixon's drunken phone call to Frost has elements of this.
  • Mind Screw: Nixon is a master at this, including a hilarious moment when he asks Frost if he'd spent the night fornicating moments before the cameras start rolling. Subverted when Nixon rings up Frost in the middle of his Heroic B.S.O.D.; at first it appears he's trying to further damage Frost's morale, but Nixon is actually drunk. When Frost realises just before his final interview that Nixon can't remember the conversation, it's our first sign that the advantage has passed to Frost.
  • Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe, Nixon's reason for agreeing to be interviewed in the first place.
  • Never My Fault: Nixon refuses to accept any responsibility for Watergate, which is partly why Frost and Co. want to do the interview: They want him to finally confess and admit his own guilt.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Nixon is portrayed as being quite a pleasant man in this film, his relationship with Jack Brennan being almost fatherly. Whether it averts or sticks to the rule of this trope depends on your view.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Nixon's late night phone call motivates a demoralised Frost to get off his butt and start prepping for the crucial Watergate interview.
  • Not So Different: The phone call about self-made men struggling against the "snobs".
    "Well, to hell with that! We're not going to let that happen, either of us. We're going to show those bums, we're going to make 'em choke on our continued success, our continued headlines. Our continued awards, and power, and glory! We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!
  • Papa Wolf: Inverted. Jack Brennan is extremely protective of Nixon, who serves as a father figure, and threatens to ruin Frost if he damages his image.
  • Pet the Dog: After the last interview, Nixon plays this completely straight.
  • Precision F-Strike: The usually elegant Nixon going on an enraged rant, devolving into slightly less eloquent diction, and ending with "We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!"
  • Rule of Drama: The two had considerably less riding on the outcome of the interviews than is implied.
  • Speech-Centric Work: Both play and film.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Nixon honestly believes he averted this.
    Nixon: When the President does it, it's not illegal.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Jack Brennan is actually quite funny and not all that stern, Nixon got 20% of the ad revenue from the interviews enticing him to want to get more people to watch it, there was no midnight call about "Cheeseburgers," and Frost thought he did a great job on the first three interviews. Also, the film overstates the impact of the interviews: Many in the media felt that Nixon got the best of Frost, Nixon didn't admit to anything that wasn't already public knowledge, and the ratings of the interviews dropped dramatically after the first night (when all of the Watergate material was discussed).
  • Wham Line: An In-Universe example. At the start of their final interview, the following exchange occurs:
    Frost: If this is anything like our conversation last night, it's sure to be interesting.
    Nixon: (With a subdued — but notable — Oh, Crap! face) What conversation?
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A very short one reminding the viewers that Nixon's corrupt actions as President haunted him until his death in 1994 and that what he is most remembered for now is creating the -gate suffix to any political scandal. It also has information about Frost.
  • Worthy Opponent: Nixon calls Frost this in the final scene.

Alternative Title(s): Frost Nixon

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