“That poor poor man,” I said once to my wife, with tears in my eyes. “Shut up in the darkness, playing the piano in the night to himself, alone and afraid, knowing what’s to come.” For God’s sake, let us forgive him, finally. But what was done to him and all his men—”all the President’s men,” as it’s put—had to be done. But it is over, and he should be let out into the sunlight again; no creature, no person, should be shut up in darkness forever, in fear. It is not humane.
Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart in Two Days
Nixon just doesn’t seem so bad any more. Not after the last eight years, and not when he is up against the lightweight avatar of politics’ television-ruled future, trying to convince himself this is a worthy adversary.
Frost/Nixon is an uncomfortable experience. Our “hero” is a placeholder protagonist – the promo materials promise a flawed white knight who stalks, fights, and eventually slays the mighty beast, but it gives us a fluffy chancer who is driven only by a vague entrepreneurial greed and the petulant desire to have his face on telly. The devil himself is a miserable man in poor health who dreads the inactivity of early and ignoble retirement, who would trade anything for a return to the challenge, excitement, and stress of politics.
Is the dichotomy of cultural meta-narrative against the worth of characters purposeful? The infinitely annoying framing device – faux documentary cutscenes, with the actors still playing the roles – continually provide exposition and character motivation that has usually been imparted quite well by the actors (and if it wasn’t, it damn well should’ve been) or blandly trot out the well known myth.
(Seriously, Ron? Either leave it for the audience to learn on wikipedia later or directly stage it in an engaging manner. If all else fails, at least get in the actual people to have the stage, describing their place in history!)
The “interviews” tell us one thing – Nixon ruined America, man! – but the action presents a more complicated story, one that doesn’t exonerate Nixon but does kind of hate Frost-the-cipher and the men who passionately want to pillory the ex-president.
Of the characters presented, Nixon is a much better fit for a hero story: the disgraced and beaten former champion seeking redemption while battling the internal demons that ruined him. He is compelling in a way the other characters aren’t, a self-loathing and charmless intellectual who brutally forced his way into the one field that absolutely requires charm and bulletproof confidence. He’s fixated on his finances – after all, he can hardly count on the high-paying speaking and consulting milk runs an ex-president can usually expect. He envies the happiness and hedonism of his political and cultural enemies desperately, but can’t identify with it. His eyes may linger on the lovely body of Frost’s girl-of-the-moment, but when he tells Frost to marry her, it’s not so he can vicariously keep her nubile charms close but secure his fiscal future: she lives in Monte Carlo, where they pay no income tax.
Most painfully, this Nixon is intensely conscious of his flaws and their permanence. He muses with Frost that perhaps they should have lived each others’ lives: Nixon the brilliant, incisive interviewer and Frost the motivating, emotive politician. This character, though, could never have been happy with a career path that would leave him happy; he needs an outward doomed struggle to mirror his internal self-hatred in order to simply function.
This Nixon defends himself: every other president has done exactly the same things, but (it’s implied) had the savvy to delegate the dirty work. How much of Latin America was covered in Nixon’s fingerprints during his vice-presidency in Eisenhower ‘do-nothing’ era? He not only got caught masterminding the amateurish mess, but couldn’t bring himself to confess or deflect the fallout before this had eclipsed all other political matters in the country, as well as wiping his earlier accomplishments from the nation’s memory.
This is the Nixon that even Philip K Dick, author of VALIS and occasional Nixonian arch-enemy, could feel some compassion for.
His opponent, David Frost, is a man whose main talent in life is knowing what will bring the maximum number of eyes to television sets. He has talk shows in the UK and Australia and once had a third in the US, which he recalls as a fairyland celebrating his specialness. Frost wants to interview Nixon because it will draw a large audience, which would give him the chance to pitch another US show, which would allow him to once again get good tables in exclusive restaurants. He assembles a two-man research team, who are bent on taking down the devil, to provide him with information and strategy – and then ignores them. They pull endless material from obscure archives, pore over the details, and roleplay scenarios, gleefully embodying Nixon’s larger-then-life persona, while Frost chases advertisers and races to the opening of every envelope in LA.
It is difficult to root for this hero. Frost has no great goal, nothing he is burning to prove – when his team asks what he hopes to achieve in the interview, his face is blank with surprise. The thought hadn’t occurred to him; he had Nixon, they’d fill time, and people would watch. The end. He didn’t even review the material his team had painstakingly gathered until the final hours before the last recording session, and even that was only motivated by a shot of Nixon’s poisonous vitality in the form of a midnight drunk dial.
Even this montage is de-motivating for the audience. He’s gambled his career and savings on this one event, and he’s never glanced at the research he commissioned? It’s as if Rocky consisted of a somewhat successful boxer who’d been briefly on top, who spends all the time leading up to final his title fight gorging on KFC and chasing endorsement deals, finally hitting the gym during a break between rounds.
He could have put the slightest bit of effort into this interview, and all 8 hours would have been brilliant.
In many ways, to continue to film’s overt boxing metaphor, the final fight is before the last interview. Nixon, having uneasily accepting the premature praise from his staff at how well he’d managed the interviews, has a few drinks and calls Frost at his hotel room. He may be winning, but it’s against a pitifully overmatched opponent with whom he has no connection. There’s no satisfaction, no real struggle. He convinces himself he’s dealing with a worthy adversary based on a history of succeeding beyond the situations they were born into and because they both want to return to past success – wilfully ignoring the fact that he wants to wield real power again, while Frost just wants the warm glow of the limelight and better party invitations.
At least the call does level the playing field. Frost does his research, allowing Nixon to take a longed-for dive with some dignity.
This last interview session could be seen as the moment Nixon began to move out of the dark. True, he would never hold office again, and he would be forced to fill his time with inane retirement activities. But he did go on to give more interviews, write more books, and was even quietly consulted as an elder politician, allowing him some measure of influence. More importantly, though, it allowed him to take his place in the American pantheon as a timeless personality, like Elvis or his great rival, Kennedy. Years after his death, Nixon (…er, his preserved cranium) became a popular recurring character on Futurama, making a successful grab at the President of Earth slot, a position that suited his Machiavellian schemes.
David Frost reads the Sunday papers on television every week.