Max DeCurtins thinks through political memory (and Stevi’s Watergate Cake) in his review of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon.
Like singular and signal world events—“where were you when…?”—sometimes your strongest memories of certain movies attach less to the movie itself and more to some bit of context: who you were with, what you were doing immediately before/after seeing it, or other movies that commanded attention contemporaneously with the movie in question.
Though over the last ten years I’ve lost nearly all memory of Frost/Nixon itself, I remember especially the cohort of Best Picture nominees to which it belongs, for early 2009 was—to my manifest sadness—the one and only time I have ever attended one of Stevi’s famed Oscar parties. I remember, for one thing, that Slumdog Millionaire won alllllll the awards. Although I can’t recall what dishes accompanied The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader, both of which I will be re-viewing here soon for 10YA, I do remember with crystal clarity that Milk occasioned a batch of Harvey Wallbangers, and that Frost/Nixon provided cover for a creation both historically informed and unremittingly offensive to good taste everywhere: the Watergate Cake.
Things you should know about the Watergate Cake:
- Usually an angel food or other so-called “white cake,” it is filled and frosted with a goop* made with instant pistachio pudding, and is decorated, variously, with either stale crushed pistachios or a blast of shredded coconut.
*(Not Goop. Please do not put this filling in your vagina.)
- It is a sickly, sickly green, and therefore completely at home in the aesthetic of ’70s design.
- It is gross. (Editor’s Wife note: “It is delicious. How dare you.”)
Unlike the cake, I remember having a favorable impression of the film ten years ago, but re-viewing Frost/Nixon literally for the first time in the decade since its release reminds me that Ron Howard, whose opus sometimes strikes me as decidedly uneven, can occasionally make films that are fucking lit, and Frost/Nixon is one such example. With that in mind, let’s get right to the re-view. There’s not much in the way of a plot, so I’ll just summarize.
The year is 1974. In the wake of Nixon’s resignation, British TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) concocts a plan to interview the former president. My earliest recollection of Sheen dates from his turn in 1997’s Wilde as Robbie Ross, a one-time youthful lover of Oscar Wilde with big eyes and a pert ass, so let’s just be upfront about the fact that my brain had other thoughts in mind that have nothing to do with David Frost. Frost’s producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) treats the interview plan as a fool’s errand, but nevertheless accompanies Frost to California for a preliminary meeting with Nixon (Frank Langella). En route, Frost charms Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) in the first-class lounge of a British Airways 747, a concept of glamorous flying that has so long since retreated to the obscurely exclusive world of the obscenely wealthy it’s almost difficult to believe it ever existed in the first place. Little else need be said about the Frost-Cushing relationship, as Howard’s anodyne, Bechdel-failing depiction of it adds very little to the film beyond, at best, a perfunctory historical accuracy.
Nixon agrees to do the interviews for six hundred thousand dollars—a fee that amounts to a warlord’s ransom. His agelastic, toxically masculine chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) schemes that the former president can pluck Frost like a pigeon and use the interviews as the first step of a public relations rehabilitation that could result in a return to power and influence in Washington. Frost’s research team, James Reston (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Zelnick (Oliver Platt) decides, along with Birt, to try to corner Nixon into admitting his guilt. Along the way, we hear briefly from Nixon’s retirement staffers, the sponsors Frost begs for money (nobody, but nobody, enjoys fundraising), and other sundry folk. Three years later, through fits and starts—and one slightly drunk and rather unhinged phone call from Nixon—Frost and his team ultimately prevail. The sponsorship subplot stands out to me the most ten years later; Frost has to contend not only with a former president determined to outwit him, but with a news business driven largely by financial concerns—an idea that feels very relevant in 2018.
Qualitatively, Frost/Nixon excels in almost every respect. Frank Langella, like Max von Sydow and the late Christopher Lee, brings a vocal gravitas and an inimitable wizened countenance to his characterization of Richard Nixon. Leave it to Langella, and the current occupant of the White House, to make Nixon seem like an intellectual heavyweight. You respect his command of a space, even if you fucking despise him. Michael Sheen, as Frost, turns in a solid portrayal of the British television personality struggling to be taken seriously, despite the sideburns; Sheen’s Frost keeps the viewer wondering whether Frost can ever transcend his reputation. Bacon, Macfadyen, Rockwell, and Platt collectively make for a worthy supporting ensemble. Howard even elevated some of the ancillary roles by raiding Apollo 13 for actors playing minor characters from his 1995 drama about one of space travel’s most infamous disasters. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography provides Frost/Nixon with compelling imagery, and even Hans Zimmer’s score, built largely around restless string passagework, teases the ear with touches of nonmusical sounds, such as the soft click-clack of a tape reel spinning and the ticking of a clock, a sound employed to great effect by any number of film composers. It’s not a memorable score, but it serves its purpose with aplomb.
So, ten years after its release, Frost/Nixon remains a well-executed, if not groundbreaking, film.
To no-one’s surprise, I think Frost/Nixon doesn’t quite pack the same punch in 2018 as it did in 2008. Ten years ago, most of us itched, even seethed, to have W out of the White House. Against this backdrop I can imagine liberals—who didn’t yet know just how bad things could get—finding Frost/Nixon something of a manifestation of their wildest dreams concerning what might happen to W given his culpability for a number of disasters and their consequences for the United States. We wanted nothing more than for a high-profile figure such as Gwen Ifill—requiescat in pace—to nail Bush’s and/or Cheney’s ass to the wall, as it were.
Alas, we got no comparable satisfaction to Frost’s entrapment of Nixon; W slunk off to a purgatory retirement to paint weird, amateurish portraits in the bathroom, rarely to be heard from. In fact, not only did we not shine an uncomfortable spotlight on wrongdoing both governmental and corporate during the younger Bush’s administration, but Obama practically shoved closed the closet door and shooed us away from it like a parent trying to keep the kids from discovering the (probably languishing) box of sex toys.
Since the movie lacks an obvious “villain” to propel the drama forward, it turns instead on two character-based questions: on the ability to transcend a charlatan’s reputation (on the part of Frost), and on the power of shame to motivate chastened behavior (on Nixon’s part). In 2018, in a country staring down the barrel of an epistemic crisis, that’s a premise that’s pretty much fucking dead on arrival.
That famous outburst that Frost provoked from Nixon—“when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”? Yawn. Given this country’s abject, systemic failure to hold politicians and corporate titans accountable for grotesque wrongdoings of every stripe, Nixon’s assertion might as well be true. Tell me something I don’t know.
Arguably, Frost/Nixon should inspire the same kind of desire among those of us of the liberal persuasion as it did in 2008. Like so much sociopolitical Groundhog Day, we strive once again to see a loathsome (Republican) president get taken down. As with Nixon, we have abundant evidence of corrupt intent. As Walter Shaub points out in Slate, the Saturday Night Massacre is already happening. If we were possessed of a dim awareness in 2008 that truth might not always prevail—especially concerning the power of facts to change minds or of public pressure to elicit confessional candor—we ought to know by now that no cathartic Frost/Nixon moment awaits us.
I wasn’t alive to see the reaction to Ford’s pardon of Nixon, but it’s not hard to imagine some sort of replay heading our way in the next 3–5 years. It reminds us that some acts cannot be countered; power can only be exercised (or withheld) if you hold it in the first place. With a system of government—and its distribution of power—that’s looking increasingly marmoreal, just change seems as far away as ever. If by some miracle we do get some kind of bombshell moment like the Supreme Court ruling of July 24, 1974, you can bet your ass I’m going to remember where I was when the hammer of karma’s-a-bitch-ain’t-it came thunderously crashing down.