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Film / Frost/Nixon

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"What I'm saying is that when the President does it, that means that it is 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.
  • 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 film implies that the interviews were conducted shortly after Nixon's resignation. In reality, they took place in 1977, three years after Nixon left office.
    • 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. While it's certainly true that Nixon and his aides didn't take Frost or the interviews seriously at first, it was as much because he assumed Frost would be a friendly interviewer as that he didn't consider Frost a serious journalist.
    • Also, the climactic scene where Brennan interrupts Frost just as he's asking Nixon to express contrition over Watergate, threatening to stop the interview. In Frost's memoirs, he recounts stopping the interview himself over a misunderstanding with Brennan note , and that Brennan and his team actually persuaded Nixon to answer Frost's question more directly than he otherwise might have. In other words, more or less the opposite of what the play/film depicts.
    • Nixon's infamous "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal" line was not actually a panicked outburst as depicted in the film, but rather a nonchalantly blunt But for Me, It Was Tuesday explanation. The impact of the line in real-life wasn't that it was an admission of guilt, but that it was a blunt admission of guilt; audiences were already confident that Nixon was a crook, they just didn't expect him to be so up-front and everyday about it.
  • 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 "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal!" outburst, there is a cut to the room in the house where Nixon's handlers are. They all have absolutely heartbroken/decimated looks on their faces, since at that moment, they know their hopes for his complete public rehabilitation are gone forever.
  • 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 bitter, paranoid monologue against anyone and everyone who's 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: "Wow. 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 to David.
  • 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 BSoD; 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.
  • 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The film paints a more sympathetic portrait of Nixon than most, but it does briefly touch on his real life racism when he wordlessly shows his disapproval of an interracial marriage.
  • 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:
  • Speech-Centric Work: Both play and film.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Nixon honestly believes he averted this.
    Nixon: What I'm saying is that when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.
  • Those Two Guys: Zelnick and Reston are hardly ever separated (apart from the talking head segments)
  • 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?
    • And, of course, Nixon's infamous "when the president does it, that means it is not illegal" outburst.
  • "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 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.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Frost Nixon


When the President does it...

Confronted about the nature of the Watergate coverup, Richard Nixon bluntly reveals that he saw himself as above the law because of his position as the President of the United States, much to the shock of David Frost. The defeated reaction from Nixon's team reveals that this was a known fact among his inner circle.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / ScrewTheRulesIMakeThem

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