The first installment of two scheduled DVD releases of British television journalist David Frost’s post-Watergate interviews with President Nixon following his 1974 resignation, Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews is being released nearly concurrently with Ron Howard’s big screen docudrama, Frost/Nixon. This historic 1977 television broadcast contains a feature length digest of the tense encounter, and a more comprehensive version of the 28 hour faceoff will be released in early 2009.
Now you may ask, what might be so different between this documentary and the new movie adapted from an original Peter Morgan theater production. The answer is, a great deal. For one, the actors playing the two contenders, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, though distinguished performers in their own right, simply lack the unique charisma and distinctive eccentricities of these formidable personalities. That said, also unrealized in the dramatic recreation through no fault of the filmmakers, is the riveting immediacy of that historical moment as it played out in real time.
Another apparent disconnect, is an effort by director Ron Howard to impart an infusion of dramatic energy into the interview by conjuring the somewhat contrived atmosphere of a verbal boxing ring, with an emphasis on carefully aimed jabs by a stressed out interrogator, and shrewdly deflected blows by a gentle, rather grandiose political performer. But the documentary has a far different and more intriguing interplay at work, with a not quite that cavalier, though poker-faced, stonewalling, sharply focused and occasionally nervously grinning Nixon playing the victim and perhaps honestly rationalizing his deeds. And, as a more nervous than aggressively cunning Frost at times fidgeting like a cornered animal or lunging impulsively in a gotcha moment, engages his formidable intellectual opponent in a cat and mouse pursuit.
As such, the weakness of Howard’s film is its emphasis on scrutinizing personalities, rather than the power of words and ideas to prevail and conquer. Not to mention, the odd standoff that appears to transpire at times, between a parent somewhat uncomfortable in the role of a disciplinarian, and a kid talking his way out of getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
But perhaps most fascinating about Frost Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews that transcends its allocation to the past, is the spontaneous, candid scrutiny of the psychology of political personalities that it provides as an unrehearsed encounter. In several instances, Nixon conjures images of swords and butcher knives inflicted metaphorically upon himself, a state of mind that might have Freud chuckling from the grave.
But more important, is the illuminating window into the way those human beings invested with enormous personal powers, become hardly capable any longer of looking upon themselves as the villains in their own life stories. And Nixon’s repeated references to his innocence in what couldn’t possibly be criminal acts because ‘conscious,’ ‘illegal’ or ‘immoral’ intent and ‘motive’ are absent, and it was all just a case of being ‘a decent man but a bad president’ with ‘bad judgment,’ are fascinating to ponder. And in effect, sealed for both men the advent of the present day unholy alliance, of entertainment, politics and journalism.
2 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Introduction by David Frost; New footage with frost shot in 1977, discussing the historical impact of the interview and his reactions to the encounter.