Frost/Nixon (2008)

Rated: R for some language.
Length: 122 minutes
Grade: BCBA=B+
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $34 million (19 U.S., 9 Intl., 6 DVD)

Written by: Peter Morgan (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen, and The Last King of Scotland)
Directed by: Ron Howard (DaVinci Code, Cinderella Man, The Missing, A Beuatufil Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Edtv, Ransom, Apollo 13, Backdraft, Parenthood, Willow, Cocoon, and Splash)
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and Oliver Platt.

This is a dramatization of the famous interviews between British entertainment show host Robert Frost and former President Richard Nixon, dwelling on Frost’s difficulties in producing the interview and the gamesmanship between the two men.

Entertainment Value: B
But I almost feel inclined to go higher. The reason this isn’t an A is because I found the presentation of Frost as a playboy nincompoop (Little Lord Fauntleroy is the expression in the film) to be inaccurate compared to the real David Frost’s history. The real man was the only guy to interview every British Prime Minister and American President over several decades. Also, the film was so disappointing in the way it portrayed the relationship between Frost and Cushing both the historically inaccurate abruptness of its beginning and the unexplained abruptness of its ending. All of that aside, if there is any one reason to watch this movie, it is because Frank Langella’s portrayal of Richard Nixon is easily one of the greatest acting achievements in recent history. The film was nominated for 5 Oscars, and Langella only lost because he was competing against Sean Penn in Milk. Not that Penn was better, but I can’t imagine the Academy giving an award, even indirectly, to Richard Nixon, especially in a year when the competition included Mickey Rourke’s Wreslter and Penn’s gay rights martyr. This is clearly one of those great times when the box office sorely misrepresents the quality of this film.
Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B-, Violence B, Language CThere is some footage of war scenes shown. The characters often smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, but never to drunkenness. There are some sexual references and a scene of a couple in bed with brief partial nudity. The language includes about 5 f-bombs, but is relatively light other than that. In spite of that, I’d actually rate this movie PG-13 for its historicity simply because I don’t think a teenager needs to be protected from this movie. This may be that rare case where the MPAA rated a movie too harshly and for the wrong reasons. Giving this an R is a bit like giving the Sistine Chapel an R for nudity, very misguided.

Significant Content: B
Television distorts and reduces both lives and accomplishments to a single emotionally vivid moment as a memory. That is its power and also its evil. People need to hear a leader who fails admit that he failed. Confessions are hard but liberating. Pride will drive people to almost any lengths, as will the feeling of being an outsider constantly struggling to prove your value. Success in New York is unlike success anywhere else, and if success is your idol, you’ll do anything to recapture it.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
There is one simple reason that Frank Langella was able to do such a fantastic job of portraying Nixon: he chose to fall in love with the character. The thing that completely distinguishes this performance from, say, Josh Brolin’s abysmal failure as George W. Bush was that simple fact. The contrast between these two movies couldn’t be stronger. In that one, the people playing Bush’s circle hated their characters. In this one, Langella at least found a way to be Nixon, which clearly required having a sense of admiration for him. I don’t know whether he had it naturally (I suspect not), but he definitely had it in the portrayal.

Discussion Questions:
~Nixon famously said that when the President does something, it’s not illegal. What’s so problematic about that viewpoint?
~Discuss some of the ways that television has changed politics and culture in America. Do you agree with this movie that TV reduces complex and lengthy things into sound bytes and quick images? If you could ban television in America, would you? Does television make our political system better?
~How many instances in this movie can you find which indicate maneuvering to win a battle by either Frost or Nixon?
~Why was it so important for the American people to hear Richard Nixon say he was wrong? Do you think apologies are useful for the victims of wrongdoing? Do you think they are cathartic for the wrongdoers? What is the Biblical perspective on apologies and repentance? Does Richard Nixon seem repentant here? Was this more of a confession or a conviction? Did Frost do Nixon a favor? Did he set out to do him a favor?
~Why do you think this movie tried to make Frost look so much less competent than he was in real life? Why did it make the early sessions seem like failures, even though that’s not historically quite accurate?
~Frost at one point talks about the biggest goal of his life being success in New York City. Would you describe his passion for that unique level of achievement as idolatry? How did that passion motivate him to do irrational things?
~The subtext of Nixon’s speeches and behavior is clearly pride and the desire to be known for his great achievements. Was this his idol? How did that interfere with him being willing to see himself and the consequences of his actions clearly?
~The late-night phone call demonstrates remarkable candor from the President about his own motivations and foibles. Why do you think he placed this call? Have you ever felt like an outsider trying to establish your worth to an elite or desirable group of people? What is the Christian message to outsiders?
Overall Grade: B+
This is very good, and especially for those of us too young to remember the real interviews, it’s a fascinating exposure to President Nixon himself.

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