The billing in Frost/Nixon says a lot about what kind of movie it is; a better title might have been, “I Interviewed an Ex-President for 29 Hours and All I Got Was Two Lousy Sound Bites.”
The movie, directed by Ron Howard from Peter Morgan’s play and screenplay, would have us believe that David Frost’s 1977 series of interviews with the disgraced 37th president (Frank Langella), who needed the money and charged $600,000 for the sit-down, was an epochal event or showdown or battle of wits. In reality, it was a TV show like many others, one that had more or less been forgotten before Morgan decided to give it the epic treatment.
Morgan and Howard go to some lengths to frame the story as a David slaying Goliath, defining Frost (Michael Sheen, who also played Tony Blair in The Queen, another Frost script) as a lightweight, a ladies’ man and a laughingstock known for hosting light entertainment shows and interviewing the Bee Gees. In reality, Frost was more of a Charlie Rose figure — he interviewed celebrities as well as newsmakers who appreciated being given the space to talk. Every journalist has covered his share of dumb stuff, because whatever people are talking about is what they have to cover.
The movie spends an hour building up to the interview by placing Frost in cramming sessions in which he hopes to learn how to give Nixon “the trial he never had.” In these scenes the movie is indeed a revelation, but what it makes brilliantly clear is that journalism is not what is happening. You might look at an interview as an opportunity to seek information, but that would be naïve of you.
What Frost wants — what virtually any journalist would want under the circumstances, and not to their credit — is to make Nixon look bad. Nixon already looked very bad indeed, and had been justly humiliated. As depicted in this movie, Frost wasn’t curious about the facts and had no interest in adding to what was known about Watergate. He believed he knew the facts and that he should use them to embarrass Nixon on camera, because that would win him adulation from other journalists, invitations to the best parties, the nuclear ego boost that comes with appearing on the cover of Time and Newsweek.