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Lights, Camera, Political Action: ‘Frost/Nixon’

By Kevin Truong

Dec. 4, 2015 9:19 p.m.

Flip on a news channel and you’re likely to see characters with perfectly coiffed hair making fantastical claims directly at the camera. But how far does this connection between political figures and entertainment go? Each week, A&E columnist Kevin Truong will look at a movie through the lens of modern politics, analyzing whether the political climate has changed or remained the same.

“Frost/Nixon” is ultimately a film about legacy.

It features a disgraced former president trying to rehabilitate his public reputation and a talk show host trying to cement his.

But the idea of legacy is a privilege afforded to very few. The vast majority of humanity merely makes its mark through memories that disappear in a generation or two.

Legacy is the realm of the giants of our time: the egomaniacs, the personalities and the world leaders. These are the people who care about legacy, who take pleasure etching their name into history books.

“Frost/Nixon” itself begins three years after the Watergate scandal torpedoes the Nixon administration. The result is the only presidential resignation in American history and a public disillusioned with the dirty business of politics.

Lying in wait in his San Clemente beachside villa, Richard Milhous Nixon (Frank Langella) plots his return to public life while he pens his memoirs with the help of a young Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) and Jack Brennan, a straitlaced aide played by Kevin Bacon.

On the other side of the world, David Frost, played with Michael Sheen’s ’70s smarmy charm, plots his return to American celebrity after a failed TV show in New York City.

Frost’s idea: Interview the former president to turn up the drama and ratings, and spark his dormant career.

Initially Nixon balks at the idea, but Frost’s offer of $600,000 piques his interest and he accepts. He believes Frost’s reputation as a lightweight will allow the former president to outwit him and rebuild his perception in the eyes of millions of Americans.

The film is adapted from an award-winning play and the interviews themselves are structured like acts depicting a shaky start, a back-and-forth, a precipitous fall and a climactic confrontation.

The first interview of the four is a disaster. Nixon uses tricks and mind games to throw Frost off balance, controlling the pace and tempo of the interview with a politician’s talking points and eating up the allotted time with drivel.

Seemingly inspired by his failure, Frost focuses more in the next two interviews. However, he is mostly outmatched by Nixon and distracted by the business deals behind the program being constantly on the verge of collapse.

It takes a drunken call from Nixon himself, where he opens up about the inferiority complex that drives his actions, to actually kick Frost into gear.

Fully prepared and armed with previously uncovered evidence dug up by his research team, Frost hammers the president on Watergate and the cover-up. He eventually gets one of the only statements of contrition by the former president ever caught on record.

“I let them down. I let down my friends, I let down my country, and worst of all I let down our system of government, and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now they think, ‘Oh it’s all too corrupt and the rest,'” Nixon says after being confronted with concrete evidence of wrongdoing by Frost. “Yeah … I let the American people down. And I’m gonna have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over.”

In reality, little of this happened – the four interviews were actually more like a dozen, the eight hours more like 28. Frost and Nixon had a chipper relationship in which they were both on the same page about their goals and ambitions. The phone call? Well, that was a bit of movie magic.

The cruel irony about legacy is that as much as people care about shaping it themselves, it is almost always shaped by people they don’t know, oftentimes after their death. Nixon’s legacy as the president who oversaw Watergate is confirmed in the movie by his interviews with a virtual stranger, Frost.

“Frost/Nixon” was critically acclaimed, a commercial success and nominated for multiple Oscars. However, it’s the image of Frank Langella as Nixon staring pensively and remorsefully into the Pacific Ocean that will stick in the public’s imagination.

Legacy, it seems, amounts to what happens on the silver screen.

The magic of Hollywood has always had a transformative power over reality. So too does the magic of politics. But as the film shows, one always wins out.

– Kevin Truong

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