This past weekend Darren and I watched Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard‘s 2008 historical drama based on the stage play by Peter Morgan. Frost/Nixon reexamines the characters and circumstances leading up to the historic 1977 interviews between the British television personality and the former US president. It looks at the frustration of Frost’s research team with Richard Nixon’s avoidance of legal prosecution, David Frost’s difficulty in raising money for the program, Nixon’s desire to reemerge as a political player, and the interviews themselves. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth a watch, as are the special features and the director’s commentary, which shed a little light on some of Howard’s directorial choices. Here’s the trailer.
For me, the element that stood out the most was Frost/Nixon as a fascinating exploration of power: the pursuit of power, the loss of power, the misuse of power, and the effect of power on an individual. One of the storylines is obvious – Nixon is the leader who has fallen from grace through his own folly and Frost represents the ascendency of youth. Nixon seeks political power, Frost desires the power of public opinion. As I said, obvious to the point of boredom and beating dead horses. Luckily, Howard has given us something more to work with, something new to explore.
In the beginning we see David Frost talking about the fleeting nature of fame, and of how he longs to re-experience the adulation of the American public. It is clear that his desire to interview Nixon is partially motivated by his desire to reenter the North American limelight. You get a picture of man who isn’t entirely comfortable in his own skin, an entrepreneur and a performer who sees the interviews as an opportunity for self promotion rather than investigative journalism. As the interview begins it is clear that Frost is outmanoeuvred by Nixon who is able to take any topic and bend it to his own benefit. Frost flounders, and it is not until a pivotal encounter with Nixon that he buckles down, does his homework, and emerges as a “worthy opponent” to the exiled politician.
The movie shows the sheer power of the office of the Presidency, even when it takes the form of a disgraced president. We see the fallen Nixon relating a series of banal antidotes for the Orthodontic Society of Huston, trying to make a buck and restore his reputation. Although it’s clear he is no longer a political player, his desire for power is clear as he threatens to wiretap his enemies (this suggestion is quickly quenched by an astute political aide). Frustrating indeed, for an ex-president to be reduced to making a buck telling banal anecdotes.
We get a taste of what Nixon is missing when the ex-President is introduced to David Frost’s prep team. As Nixon arrives at the interview James Reston Jr (played by Sam Rockwell) vows not to shake the hand of the man he blames for the downfall of American democracy. And yet when the virulently anti-Nixon Reston meets the President, he can do nothing but quietly shake his hand. That’s the power of power, even the residual power of a disgraced president.
Close to the end of the interview President Nixon says, “No one will ever know what it is like to resign the Presidency.” Although this line was not in the actual interviews themselves, I think this comment reveals a lot about the character of Nixon. The line conveys the lonely truth that backdrops Nixon’s life and legacy – he is the only person in history who has had to voluntarily give up the most powerful position in the world. And for a man who long desired that position of power, that is a deep loss.
Nixon damaged many people, he broke the law, he used his office to fulfill personal political vendettas. But his downfall was entirely his own fault. When you are in a leadership position, the buck stops with you. And if a leader chooses to abuse that power, that person is fully responsible. Nixon was the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, he had the world in the palm of his hand, and he lost it because he authorized illegal actions against his political enemies. His downfall was spectacular, and it was entirely his own fault.
While Nixon is certainly a complex character and certainly not a wholly evil individual, history has condemned Watergate, and justly so. But it is worth looking at the situation from the perspective of the perpetrator.
All the little “Nixons” of the world, all those people who wield power for personal gain, those who run roughshod over others in their pursuit of their own goals, all those people will have to live with the consequences of their choices. While they may deny it, deep down they know that they are responsible for causing pain. Imagine carrying that on your conscience. It is a sobering thought and Nixon’s downfall should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us to follow the old maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Conversely, we should also be careful when pursuing truth and justice lest we lose compassion and become what we are pursuing. As the interview ends, Nixon retreats amidst the celebrations of Frost’s prep team. Frost himself does not immediately join in the celebrations, but watches Nixon as he leaves, perhaps wondering if they went too far. Perhaps something intangible was damaged in their pursuit of justice and truth.
And yet, wrongdoing should be exposed. It’s a fine line between exposure and exploitation and Frost/Nixon is a fascinating exploration of truth, power, and compassion and finding the balance between the three.