Ron Howard is no stranger to American history. Having found great success with APOLLO 13 and A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2005's CINDERELLA MAN disappointed in its profits. So Howard went smaller. He looked to the stage and Peter Morgan's critically acclaimed play "Frost/Nixon." The now two-time Oscar nominated writer had admittedly taken a number of liberties in his dramatization. Howard knew going in that he would have to distort the facts more than he had in his previous historical efforts. This won him rave reviews for his direction, and delivered a side to Frank Langella that no one knew existed. But the film's cost was in the neighborhood of $30 million, and it failed to make back that figure worldwide. Perhaps it was the small-scale nature of the project, or the absence of A-list stars. Despite its box office woes, the film earned five Academy Award nominations -- one for Howard, one for Morgan, one for Langella, and one for the picture as best of 2008. Critics were satisfied. Audiences apathetic. And truth seekers? Theirs was a surprisingly heavy ax to grind.
The film begins in 1974 as President Richard M. Nixon (Frank Langella) leaves the White House having resigned due to the allegations surrounding the Watergate scandal. Watching the events intently is David Frost (Michael Sheen), an English talk show host with little credibility as a man to be taken seriously, or intellectually. But Frost sees an opportunity in this. He wants Nixon...badly. He pitches the idea to his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) and is soon in talks with Nixon's representative Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) to air an intimate interview with the ex-president. After agreeing to pay Nixon $600,000 for his services, Frost then visits with the networks and advertisers, hoping to secure a spot for the program, and funding to back it up. He's turned away by them all. Nonetheless, he assembles a team of James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to essentially put Nixon on the stand. Following months of prep, the interviews begin, playing like a boxing match between an old champion and an overwhelmed challenger. Nixon and top aide Jack Brenner (Kevin Bacon) are clearly winning the fight after the first few days of taping. But it will all boil down to the Watergate day--the day when Nixon will have little opportunity to ramble on about his achievements. Nixon lobs an impassioned phone call to Frost before the last interview, claiming he'll be coming with everything he's got. So Frost goes to work harder, uncovering undeniable evidence that Nixon knew of the cover-up long before he claimed to have heard of it. Frost gets the confession he wanted and Nixon is defeated on national television in the trial he never had.
This sort of structure and storytelling makes for compelling drama, as even David Frost himself conceded when he saw the play on which the film was based. But this isn't exactly the way it happened. Morgan's story, while impressive to both Frost and James Reston Jr., distorted too much of the truth. One particularly objectionable scene, is the phone call from Nixon to Frost prior to the final day of taping. This riveting scene was a piece of pure fiction, yet Frost still deemed it a "masterpiece." However, he wasn't willing to let everything slide. In his book, also titled "Frost/Nixon," Frost said of the many additional liberties taken in Morgan's play,
"I was not so sure about some of the other fictionalizations. Why was Watergate now the twelfth of the twelve sessions and not--as actually happened--two sessions in the middle, as sessions eight and nine? Why did James Reston's discoveries from the Watergate tapes only reach me on the morning of the Watergate session and not eight months earlier, as had actually been the case? Why did the early sessions, which contained a lot of good material, have to be depicted so negatively? Why do we see Swifty Lazar, Nixon's agent, making a series of demands without learning that they had been successfully rejected?"
These inaccuracies also made it into the film. When Frost brought these points before Morgan, the response he most often received was a sigh followed by "David, you've got to remember this is a play, not a documentary." And then it was a movie, straying further from the truth. Frost may have been happy with Michael Sheen's portrayal of himself in the role, but he ultimately knew Sheen was merely playing a character. Sheen himself admits this:
"You start to see that there are certain conflicts between what the requirements of the actual person are. Having done my research on David, you can see that he's had a whole history of being a formidable interviewer. But if we made Frost look overly competent than the tension and the suspense of whether what's going to happen in the interviews would be lost. So inevitably, you play up certain elements."
Frost was in fact more of a serious interviewer and intellectual than he's given credit for here. In fact, he had actually interviewed Nixon in 1968 on "The David Frost Show," and had hoped to sit down with him again every year until he finally found success in 1977. We're led to believe Frost was a nothing more than a goofy talk show host prior to this big break.
James Reston Jr. called the concept of Morgan's play/script "theatrically brilliant" and "entirely accurate." When the play opened in London in 2006, Reston remembers in a December 2008 article in Smithsonian Magazine, that no one (himself included) cared much whether or not it was historically accurate. Nixon's breaking down and admission of guilt was nothing short of satisfying, even if it wasn't the way it happened.
Said Morgan regarding his story,
"I'm satisfied no one will ever agree on a single, 'true' version of what happened in the Frost/Nixon interviews--thirty years on we are left with many truths or many fictions depending on your point of view. As an author, perhaps inevitably that appeals to me, to think of history as a creation, or several creations, and in the spirit of it all I have, on occasion, been unable to resist using my imagination.
Morgan didn't stop there, later scoffing at the "facts" in a case like this where, according to him, too many versions of the same events exist. In a New York Times article from 2008, Morgan boldly claims that by interviewing the interviewers, he's learned "what a complete farce history is." But when so many of the events in question were documented on camera resulting in the largest news audience in history, how much farce can there be?
In the film's climax, Frost finally gets that confession he and his team were hoping for, as Nixon admits he took part in a "cover-up." However, one look at the original interviews reminds us that this is not what Nixon actually said. He claimed innocence in any obstruction of justice, swearing his motives were political in nature. "You're wanting me to say that I, ah...participated in an illegal cover-up? No," Nixon said. The disgraced president did in fact confess that he let the country down in a powerful TV close-up moment, but he emphatically denied knowingly committing any criminal wrongdoing.
Elizabeth Drew, author and contributor for The New York Review of Books was particularly bothered by film, calling it "fundamentally dishonest," and its plot a contrivance. In a December 2008 Huffington Post article, Drew points out the story's omission of the twenty percent of the profits Nixon was guaranteed, claiming he and Frost were in business together on the deal, each hoping to make the interviews interesting and make some money back. She notes the taping break suddenly called for by the Nixon aides near the film's climax as a misrepresentation. It was Frost who actually called for the break, having misread a cue card. Jack Brennan then told Frost's aides, "He knows he has to go further. He's got more to volunteer." This is not in line with the Brenner character. Drew also references the Colson tape. After seeing the play she became more interested in Reston's finding of the supposed unknown taped conversation between Nixon and Colson. She checked with one of the Watergate prosecutors "who told me that that particular piece of tape was unknown because 'we were awash in far more incriminating evidence' against Nixon, and the prosecutors didn't consider it worth using."
As for Ron Howard, he had another motivator for making the film. "I was connecting it to the Bush administration," Howard said, "being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the alleged abuses of power that were being discussed constantly. And once I had gone through all that and decided I wanted to do it, and that was that." Producer Brian Grazer also called it ï¿½"a metaphor for what's going on today." Metaphors and allegories don't speak to honest American history like Howard and Grazer did in APOLLO 13. It seems a commitment to the truth was not as big a concern this time around.
The real Nixon did not try to intimidate Frost prior to each session, as Langella does to Sheen (though he did ask him if he had done any fornicating over the past weekend--more from a desperate attempt to be one of the boys than anything else). Langella's performance, brilliant as it may be, was over-the-top in nature, playing up drama where no drama existed. He did in fact drone on in the interviews to boast of his accomplishments, as we see, but Nixon's sense of humor in the film was hardly consistent with that of the ultra serious, "verbally stiff" ex-president, as Frost calls him.
But foundationally, this is a true story. Many of the sequences leading up to the interviews are backed up in Frost's book, and his aired exchanges with Nixon are obviously well documented. Several scenes from in FROST/NIXON are just as they were when the interviews were conducted in 1977. Howard's film moves a number of scenes around, embellishes some of the exchanges, and curiously leaves out others (Frost's tough questioning on Vietnam, Nixon's vulnerable concession that he almost prayed he wouldn't wake up the morning H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned, etc.). Yet, its holes are just too much when compared to other nonfiction projects. "In reaching for an international audience, one that includes millions unversed in recent American history, Morgan and Ron Howard...make the history virtually irrelevant," Reston concludes. Peter Morgan was right--this is not a documentary.
“On set, the cast and crew referred to Frank Langella as "Mr. President."”