Director: Ron Howard.
Starring: Frank Langella (Richard Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Sam Rockwell (James Reston, Jr.), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Matthew Macfadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar), Andy Milder (Frank Gannon), Kate Jennings Grant (Diane Sawyer), Gabriel Jarret (Ken Khachigian), Jim Meskimen (Ray Price), Patty McCormack (Pat Nixon), Geoffrey Blake (Interview Director), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis).
if the President of the United States does it, then it's legal (Nixon and Watergate)
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
June 18, 1972. There has been a break in at the Watergate apartments and office complex. The burglars targeted the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Lawyer John Dean says that Nixon knew about the Watergate cover-up.
The Supreme Court says the President of the United States has to turn over the tapes made in the White House concerning the Watergate scandal.
August 8, 1974. Nixon resigns from the office of the presidency.
Jack Brennan, former Nixon Chief of Staff, says that David Frost is the host of Frost Over Australia. He is a British talk show host. He had a talk show here in the United States but he was dropped and he took his act down under so to speak. Frost has been watching the Watergate hearing on television and the president's resignation. He asks someone on his staff to find out how many people in the world are watching Nixon's resignation.
Two weeks later. London Weekend Television Studios. David speaks with John Birt, his producer. He says he is planning an interview with a big fish and wants John to be the producer. John asks who is this big fish and David says it's Richard Nixon. John chuckles. But David is serious. John says the people would want a confession from Richard Nixon. David says: "We'll get that too." But about this time Nixon has an acute attack of phlebitis and is rushed to the hospital. Then President Gerald Ford gives Nixon a full pardon.
Three months later, San Clemente, California, USA. Swifty Lazar, Nixon's literary agent from Hollywood, comes to pay a visit. He is helping Nixon with his book of memoirs. Nixon introduces Irving Lazar to Nixon aides Diane Sawyer and Frank Gannon. Swifty says he got $2.3 million dollars for Nixon's memoirs. Nixon says the book is important to him because it's the only chance he'll get to set the record straight. Swifty brings up the subject of David Frost. Nixon says no, he's not interested. But Swifty tells Nixon that going with Frost would be easier than doing an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS news. And CBS is only offering $350,000 dollars, while they can get $500,000 dollars from Frost. Nixon asks if they can get $550,000 dollars.
Swifty comes back to Nixon and says he got $600,000 dollars from Frost. Frost desperately wants to be a success again in the United States.
On an airplane Frost sees a young woman named Caroline Cushing and goes over to speak with her. They talk through most of the flight and before parting Frost asks her to come with him when he goes to see Richard Nixon. Caroline says yes to the offer.
David Frost goes around to all the networks and he gets turned down by all of them. Some say they don't pay for interviews. Caroline comments that David doesn't do failure.
David, John Birt and Caroline go to see Nixon at his home. Nixon takes a shine to Caroline right away and gives the three a personal tour of his house. Nixon says to Frost that he has never been challenged to a duel, but he likes that. He also tells Frost that he should marry that woman (Caroline).
One week later. Los Angeles International airport. David comes up with a new idea. He approaches various investors with the idea of paying for the interview program themselves and syndicating it themselves. This way they can completely bypass the networks.
The Plaza Hotel, New York City, 1976. Jim Reston, a professor at the University of North Carolina working on a book about the abuse of power by Nixon, and Bob Zelnick are introduced to David Frost. They are going to be the two researchers on the project. There will be thirty hours of taped interviews with Nixon. Reston asks Frost what does he want to achieve? This throws Frost a bit off his mark, so he asks Reston what would he want to achieve? Reston wants the interviews to be the trial that Nixon never had. But Reston's greatest fear is that the interviews could prove a way for Nixon to exonerate himself in the public's view. David asks for a moment to speak with his producer in private.
Bob and Jim go outside in the hall. Bob is mad at Jim for being much too aggressive with Frost. John Birt wants to get rid of Jim Reston because the professor is overemotional. He says no one would be able to work with Jim. Burt Frost actually wants him on his team. He says: "I like his passion."
At a political dinner Nixon is boring his audience of Republican supporters. When he gets off the stage he tells Jack Brennan that he can't stand these dinners anymore. He had told everyone that he did not want any questions about Watergate, and what happened? He got questions on Watergate. Nixon says they only care about Watergate and care nothing about his many accomplishments in office.
Jack Brennan tells Nixon that Frost got the money for the interviews. They start taping at the end of March. Watergate is only one of four ninety minute shows. The other three shows deal with domestic affairs, foreign policy and Nixon the man. Jack says that Frost isn't in the President's intellectual class. He will make mincemeat of the talk show host.
January 27, 1977. Fifty-five days before the interview with Nixon. Beverly Hills Hilton. Frost's team prepares for the interviews. Birt works on the Vietnam War; Bob works on foreign and domestic policy; and Jim works on Watergate and the abuses of power. Jim comments that they never saw much of David. (David was busy arranging financing.) In the practice interviews, Bob played the part of Nixon .
David comes in with Caroline. He says that finally someone has said something nice about the upcoming interviews. It's Jack Anderson of the Washington Post. He writes that the Frost team has hired two crack investigators and they are going to give Nixon a challenge. Jim tells David that they are going to have to ambush Nixon. David seem almost a bit cavalier about the interviews, which bothers Bob and Jim.
Jack Brennan calls David Frost. He tells David that the word Watergate should be taken as an umbrella term for everything negative that happened. But Frost objects and Jack gets mad at David telling him he should be more respectful to the former President. He says all the journalists are just so smug. Sixty percent of the stuff Nixon did was right, says Jack. David threatens a possible lawsuit of $20 million if they cancel the interviews. Jack says he will ruin David if it's the last thing he does.
David is heading off for the premiere of the movie The Slipper and the Rose. He is the executive producer of the film. Bob and Jim can't believe he is going to a movie premiere when the next day he faces Nixon again. John Birt assures them that David will do fine tomorrow.
Nixon is told to turn on the television. On television is David Frost being interviewed. Asked about the Nixon interviews, Frost says that he is hoping to get from Nixon "a cascade of candor." Frost started life as a comic and he almost married Diahann Carroll. Nixon asks "Isn't she black?" He raise his eyebrows.
Interview Day 1. March 23, 1977. Because of technical difficulties the venue for the interviews is changed to the home of a Mr. Smith, a Republican businessman. Nixon asks and David tells him that the whole thing is costing $2 million dollars.
David starts the interview by asking Nixon why didn't he burn the tapes when their existence became known? Nixon objects saying that Watergate was supposed to be talked about only in the last session of the interviews. But when Frost won't back down, Nixon starts to answer the question. He starts rambling on about how President Johnson had set up the system, blah, blah. Frost asks him when did he know he was going to resign? He knew July 23 that it was over. The Speaker of the House put the screws on the Southern Democrats.
The Frost team decides they have to take a break and do so. They tell David that Nixon's answers are way too long and that he is constantly rambling eating up the clock. Meanwhile, Jack Brennan is very happy about Nixon's performance. He tells him just continue his control of the space by providing long answers. When the interview begins again, Frost asks Nixon about the prayer session with Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State.
Bob and Jim are still being super-critical of Frost. John defends David by saying that only 30% percent of the project has been paid for. This means that David is on the line for the rest of the money. He's got enough worries on his back without hearing attacks on his performance. And David is aware of what's happening. He's just trying to stay positive in spite of all his troubles.
Interview 2. March 25, 1977. The team tells David not to let Nixon get to him with his little mind games. Nixon again strikes with another mind game, asking David just before the start of the second interview: "Did you do any fornicating?" David goes after Nixon on Vietnam and then the invasion of Cambodia. He asks the President why he went into Cambodia when even CIA and Pentagon intelligence suggested it would fail? Nixon had suggested that there was a "bamboo Pentagon" operating in Cambodia. The result of the campaign was that Nixon radicalized a once moderate people which led to the murderous Khmer Rouge, then civil war and genocide. Frost then runs a tape of the death of countless civilians because of the action in Cambodia. Nixon gets angry and instead of saying he made a mistake, he says: "I wish I'd gone in sooner and harder." Jim comments on Nixon: "It was horrifying and he was so confident. . . It was agony to watch."
Interview Day 3. March 28, 1977. Bob tells David that he just let Nixon say that the state was in a period of revolution! "You're making him look presidential, for Christ's sake!" David is a bit fed up with all the criticism and he says that frankly he doesn't share their sense of pessimism or alarm. He adds that " . . . this ridiculous self-flagellation . . . is just depressing and threatening to derail the whole enterprise." David asks the guys to celebrate with him and Bob asks what is there to celebrate? Frost says it's his birthday. At the celebration there are a lot of celebrities, including Hugh Hefner, Neil Diamond and Sammy Cahn.
Nixon plays the piano for his family. Jack tells Pat, Nixon's wife, that the President has an eleven to zero lead in the interviews.
David receives some bad news. They have dropped his Australian show. And his producer is worried that the London show will follow. Frost is worried and starts second-guessing himself. He wonders why someone didn't stop him.
Late in the night Nixon calls Frost. He is a little drunk. He says he has learned that Frost came from humble beginnings but he went to an elite school, Cambridge. Nixon fells a certain camaraderie with Frost because of this. He describes their situation as "our tragedy". Nixon says no matter how hard they work and how much they accomplish, the snobs always look down on "us". It's never enough for the snobs. And Frost and he desperately want to get back into the limelight. Frost says the limelight can only shine on one of us. Nixon says tomorrow he is going to be focused and ready for battle.
Frost starts studying for the first time in the interviews. He calls Jim in Washington, D.C. on Easter break and tells him to go ahead to the Federal Courthouse Library and find out about that Nixon/Colson meeting that he was talking about. At the end of Easter break Jim reports to David what he found out. The next morning everyone is late, except Bob and John, They are taken aback when David, Jim and Caroline come down looking so serious and determined.
Nixon is late for the interview. Another mind game? As Nixon passes the waiting David, he does not shake his hand. Frost says something about the talk they had the other night. Nixon doesn't know what David is talking about. He doesn't remember the call at all.
The first question is did the President ever obstruct justice? Nixon says that a finding of obstructing justice requires that there be a corrupt motive and he certainly didn't have one. David mentions the 18.5 minute gap in one of the crucial tapes and then he goes on to a conversation between the President and Charles Colson. Nixon has maintained that he first learned about Watergate on June 23, but the conversation proves that a falsehood. In the conversation the President was already talking about the possibility that one of the seven [burglars] would begin talking and that would be a problem for them. Frost backs the President into a corner and Nixon becomes angry. He says that sometimes a President has to do something that may technically be illegal, but it has to be done for the greater good of the country. Frost asks him to elaborate. Nixon says: "I'm, saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal." Frost presses Nixon saying he he was part of a cover-up.
Jack Brennan is afraid that Nixon is on the verge of telling the truth so he rushes into the interviewing area and stops the taping. The Frost team is extremely mad at Jack. They say he deliberately sabotaged the interview. They say they can sue him for this.
Jack goes into see the President in another room. Nixon comments that Jack threw in the towel; he took pity on Nixon. Jack says Nixon was on the verge of an emotional disclosure and he thought they should think about this, sketch it out first.
Nixon goes back to the interview. Frost goes after him getting right to the point. He says there are three things that Nixon should admit to, not only for the American people but also for himself, for his peace of mind. First, he should admit that more than mistakes were made. There was actual wrongdoing. Second, he should admit that he did abuse the power of the presidency. And third, he put the American people through two years of needless agony because of his actions.
Nixon after a pause admits that he made mistakes and he was involved in a cover-up, as Frost calls it. He adds: "And for all those mistakes I have a very deep regret." He admits they were his mistakes and will blame no one else for them. He says: "I brought myself down." Frost asks: "And the American people?" Nixon says: "I let them down. I let down my friends. I let down the country. And worst of all I let down our system of government." He tells Frost that he will have to carry that burden with him for the rest of his life.
Now the entire Frost team enthusiastically celebrates their victory. Jim says that David succeeded on that final day because he got Nixon to say what no one else had managed to get from him.
The Nixon/Frost interviews were wildly successful. they attracted the largest audience for a news program in the history of American television. David Frost appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek news magazines.
Before heading for London David and Caroline stopped to say goodbye to the President. Nixon tells him that he was a worthy opponent.
Now New York , London and Sidney welcomed David Frost.
In 1994 Nixon died of a stroke.
Good movie. But I must say I was skeptical of the subject matter. Look, everyone knew Nixon had been part of the cover-up of the Watergate scandal (except for many Southern Democrats and other rednecks). So why all the fuss over getting Nixon to say he actually was part of a cover-up? It's a legitimate theme, but is it all that important compared to such historical themes as World War I and Pearl Harbor? Not really. The film is more one of personal triumph. The little guy makes a big success despite all the resistance from his skeptics and critics. And on that level, the movie does work. I personally didn't know what Frost had to go through to get the interviews on television. I only remember him being a big success and seeing him on what I thought was way too many television programs. But maybe I underestimated the importance of the feeling of satisfaction stemming from getting Nixon to admit that he had done the nation wrong. I thought the acting was good all around.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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