Updated: Mar 30
Mirriam-Webster defines scandal as “a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it.” Common culture defines the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show as “Nipplegate,” the utilization of false documents regarding George W. Bush’s military service during a broadcast on CBS by Dan Rather as “Rathergate,” and the deflation of footballs for use in the NFL as “Deflategate.” What all of these controversies hearken to is arguably the biggest scandal in U.S. modern history: the Watergate scandal. In 1972, a slew of crimes perpetuated by President Richard M. Nixon, his aides, administration, and counselors came to light. The crimes included, but were not limited to, burglary, wiretapping, and misuse of campaign funds in order to secure Nixon a re-election. Once these crimes surfaced, subsequent cover-ups were made to preserve Nixon’s innocence. Ultimately, the country’s outrage and distrust led Nixon to resign in 1974, before his inevitable impeachment.
In today’s culture of “fake news” and tweet-crazy politicians, it’s sometimes easy to forget that while the outreach may have been different in the past, there has always been a system of checks and balances between the public and politics. A month after Nixon’s resignation, President Gerald R. Ford pardoned Nixon much to the country’s dismay. It had seemed that the United States would never get the apology, let alone the admission of guilt, it so desperately desired from the Republican party for one of the largest abuses of power in history. This feeling of unrest and injustice brewed for three years. On May 5, 1977, 45 million viewers tuned in to see the charismatic British television host and media personality, David Frost, challenge Richard M. Nixon for the first installment in his four part television series, The Nixon Interviews.
Ron Howard’s 2008 Frost/Nixon is a dramatic retelling of those interviews, from conception to execution to reception. Stemming from Peter Morgan’s 2006 play by the same name, the stageplay was adapted personally by Morgan for the screen. While not entirely historically accurate, the film captures the intense desire from both camps to control the narrative of the interviews and guide their respective parties to a “win.” Frost, portrayed with wit and charm by Michael Sheen, is joined by his producer John Birt, ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick, and American journalist James Reston Jr. Nixon, growled to perfection by Frank Langella, is aided by his post-presidential chief of staff Jack Brennan, his literary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, and a handful of investigative reporters including a young Diane Sawyer. At the time, Nixon agreed to be interviewed for a hefty sum of $600,000 and 20% of any profits to ease his growing financial woes, and Frost needed the interviews to rehabilitate his stateside television career after his New York based television program had failed. With reputations on the line, both parties approach the interviews as a means to regain former glory.
In the realm of Frost/Nixon, the camera is treated as a god. In many ways, Frost and Nixon both pay tribute to it, knowing very well the story and worth of their lives are entwined with their on-screen personas. Preceding the interviews, Nixon recounts that public perception of his debate with President John F. Kennedy changed dramatically between radio perception and television reception. Famously known for his sweaty upper-lip, Nixon was seen as the loser of the debate when witnessed in the flesh, but through voice alone he came across as the winner. Set in a California home, The Nixon Interviews take advantage of allowing viewers into an intimate setting to further control their viewers’ comfort and receptivity to their own chosen narratives. Both men understand the power this setting can have, but by surrounding an intimate living room with stage lights, booms, and producers, the Smith family den more closely resembles a boxing ring. Before each taping takes place, both teams lock eyes acknowledging they’re both ready to throw down.
Frost/Nixon treats the four part television special as only four individual days of taping, when in reality the taping took place over the course of 12 interviews, resulting in over 28 hours of material. Clearly, there is no better representation of the phrase, “there’s always more to the story.” While Howard doesn’t delve into each of the 12 tapings, he uses dramatic license to expound on the tension between the two men by creating a series of fictitious telephone calls. At the beginning of the interviews, Nixon uses these telephone calls to establish dominance by engaging in head-games. Moments before the first few interviews, he chooses to bewilder Frost by commenting on his “feminine” fashion choices or asking about his sexual escapades the night before. Nixon knows he is using his most powerful asset, his voice, in order to intimidate Frost, because once the camera starts rolling, he knows his defenses are weakened.
Before the last round of taping, however, Nixon drunkenly calls Frost to wax poetically about lost dreams and working their way to the top from seemingly nothing. He speculates that they’re two men cut from the same cloth who just happen to be on opposite sides. He promises that these interviews are going to make their respective adversaries acknowledge their greatness once and for all...but there can only be one winner. It’s this phone call that lights a fire under Frost to come at Nixon with a diligence that will lead him to victory.
It would seem as if David Frost’s success is a byproduct of the symbiotic relationship he has with the camera. His charm grows while in the spotlight and he saves his discomfort to only be visible behind the scenes. During The Nixon Interviews, he’s like a socialite Kal-El and the camera is his sun. For the final day of taping, focusing on Watergate, Frost realizes his desire to become “a trusted confidante” in Nixon’s eyes has been his handicap and changes his direction of attack. In a one-two punch of questioning, he gets Nixon to begin to admit, “Look, when you’re in office you gotta do a lot of things sometimes that are not always in the strictest sense of the law, legal…” To which Frost replies, “...are you really saying that in certain situations the President can decide whether it’s in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal...?”
Nixon: “I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s NOT illegal.”
Out for the count.
History classes always teach the story of Nixon and the Watergate scandal, but Frost/Nixon teaches the lesser-known truth of Nixon’s condemnation. While Ford had exonerated Nixon, an outsider and a television personality took it upon himself to expunge that pardon and heal a nation in turmoil. He managed to coax an apology out of Nixon who confessed to letting the American people down, knowing he would never have a political life again. In today’s climate, that would be like a less flamboyant Graham Norton taking Trump to task for his presidential bravado. Frost/Nixon takes place forty years ago this year, and is no less a reflection of our political environment as it was back then. Half of America still is hungry for answers and admissions of guilt. If you haven’t seen Frost/Nixon, I implore you to seek it out. Howard’s film gives hope that even in the aftermath of injustice, wrongdoers can still be held to trial. It even bestows humility and humanity to the corrupt. Living in the heavily filtered social media climate we live in, Frost/Nixon reminds us that a camera can have the ability to strip one to one’s core. If the camera really is a god, it truly can see all.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.