AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Ron Howard (Dir)
Release Date:   5 Dec 2008
Duration (in mins):  122
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Cast: Frank Langella  (Richard Nixon)
  Michael Sheen  (David Frost)
  Sam Rockwell  (James Reston, Jr.)

Summary: In Aug 1974, the disgraced President Richard M. Nixon resigns from office in order to avoid impeachment for his alleged role in the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile, in Australia, David Frost, the internationally famous British talk show interviewer and jet-setting playboy, watches the news from the studio where he hosts one of his live talk shows. As Frost watches the television screen, Nixon leaves the White House for the last time and, before boarding the helicopter, turns and looks directly into the camera. Intrigued, Frost arranges to get the figures on the number of viewers watching Nixon-related broadcasts. Two weeks later, in London, Frost tells his friend, producer John Birt, that he has written to Nixon, asking for an interview. Because the witty Frost’s interview style is more often associated with popular entertainers, the surprised Birt warns that the public’s only interest in Nixon is to hear a confession. Ever confident, Frost says that he can get that and tells Birt that 400 million viewers watched Nixon’s farewell speech. As time passes, Frost receives no reply from Nixon, who undergoes emergency medical treatment for phlebitis. Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford, grants Nixon a full and absolute pardon, hoping that the country will move on from the scandal, despite indications from polls that most Americans feel Nixon was responsible for the greatest felony in the country’s political history. Some time later, while Nixon is writing his memoirs, hoping to resurrect his tarnished image and revive his political career, his literary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, suggests that he allow Frost to interview him, as Frost would pay more than a hard news journalist and be easier to manipulate. During negotiations, Frost agrees to pay an unheard of fee of $600,000, before he has secured backers for the project. Aghast when he learns of the amount, Birt warns that television network heads, whose goodwill is necessary for syndication, resent Frost for having outbid them. Birt argues that Frost’s successful career does not warrant such a risk, but Frost, whose fame in the United States has waned since the cancellation of a previous talk show, confides how he misses the feeling of success in America, which he says is unlike anywhere else. On the flight to California to sign the contract with Nixon, Birt naps, but the gregarious Frost flirts with socialite divorcée Caroline Cushing and impulsively invites her to come along. At Nixon’s home in San Clemente, Frost, Birt and Caroline are greeted as friends by Nixon, who makes deadpan jokes, tells anecdotes and urges Frost to approach their impending interview, which he calls a “duel,” with a “no holds barred” attitude. Before leaving, Frost writes out a check for $200,000, money he has barely raised from wealthy friends and by sale of his own stocks. Later Jack Brennan, Nixon’s loyal chief of staff, speculates that Frost will be unlikely to raise the rest of the fee. To assist them, Frost and Birt interview two Americans for the project: Bob Zelnick, a news reporter at National Public Radio, and James Reston, Jr., an author and college teacher who has criticized Nixon’s tenure as president in his many books. As they talk, Reston is adamant that the interviews be the trial Nixon never had, and expresses anxiety that Frost’s breezy style will instead provide the fallen leader with a means to exonerate himself. Because of Reston's fervent emotion, Birt and Zelnick doubt his suitability as an advisor to the project, but Frost feels that Reston’s ability to challenge him will be useful. In late 1976, Brennan, who is certain the interviews will resuscitate Nixon’s image, informs him that taping has been scheduled to begin in March. In January 1977, Frost’s team moves into the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Birt, Zelnick and Reston research and strategize the questions Frost will ask, although Frost himself is continually absent, as he is still seeking backers. In addition, because all the major U.S. television networks have rejected airing the interviews, he is negotiating with several independent stations. Reston, who believes they need information that will take their adversary by surprise, wants to return to Washington to search for an unpublished transcript of a meeting between Nixon and a colleague that would prove Nixon knew about illegal activities surrounding Watergate earlier than he claims. When Frost refuses to release him, Reston feels uneasy about his lack of concern. According to the contract between Frost and Nixon, a series of four interviews will cover specifically agreed upon areas: Nixon himself; his foreign and domestic policies; Vietnam; and, in the final interview, Watergate. On 22 March 1977, the day before the first scheduled interview, newspapers report on Frost’s team of “crack” investigators, prompting Brennan to attempt to renegotiate the content of the four interviews. However, Frost refuses, and the resulting argument ends in a standoff. To the dismay of his team, Frost spends the evening at the Hollywood premiere of a film he produced. Birt assures Reston and Zelnick that Frost is a “performer of the highest caliber” who can handle multiple responsibilities, but Birt's use of the word “performer” rather than “journalist” heightens their anxieties. During the first interview, Nixon takes the lead by stonewalling with long-winded anecdotes. Reston and Zelnick accuse Frost of being too passive, but Birt, aware that a sponsor has backed out, asks for their indulgence, reminding them that Frost’s reputation and money are on the line. However, Reston and Zelnick feel their careers are also at stake. Before the second interview, the team coaches Frost to avoid generalizations, interrupt long stories and be wary of the politician’s agile use of “mind games.” When Nixon arrives, he condescendingly calls Frost his “Grand Inquisitor” and just before the film rolls, rattles Frost by asking if he did any “fornicating” the previous night. During this session, which is about Nixon’s role in Vietnam, the former president expresses sorrow about the casualties and regret that he could have saved lives if he had been more aggressive. After the taping, Reston and Zelnick angrily criticize Frost for not challenging Nixon’s biased versions of historical events. Emotions peak, as the team members fear that the interviews are providing Nixon the means to accumulate public support. Frost, who seems to be in a daze of denial, says he does not share their concern, then abruptly invites them to celebrate his birthday at the trendy restaurant, Ma Maison. That night, as Reston and Zelnick gawk at the celebrities partying with Frost, Nixon is at home entertaining close friends with a piano piece he has written while Brennan assures Nixon’s wife Pat that the interviews are going well. Some time later, in his hotel room, when Frost learns that his Australian show was dropped and his London show might follow, the enormity of his risks overwhelm him. Alone at his darkest moment, Frost receives an unexpected phone call from an inebriated Nixon, who suggests that they are alike. Nixon points out they both come from modest circumstances, fighting for achievement, while “snobs” withhold their respect. Nixon, who adds that they both are trying to regain the limelight, says to Frost, “We’ll show them,” but Frost reminds him that only one can win. Both realize that, in the end, either Nixon’s career will be curtailed permanently or Frost will be bankrupt, publicly ridiculed and in possession of a series of taped interviews he cannot sell. Before hanging up, Nixon vows to be Frost’s “fiercest adversary,” a challenge that motivates Frost. Throughout the night, he studies the materials his team has amassed and orders Reston to follow up his hunch about the transcript. At the next interview, Frost enters confidently, and just before the cameras roll, mentions the phone call, which unsettles Nixon, as he does not remember making it. Frost assertively asks questions, cuts off long stories and challenges disputed claims. When Frost reveals the transcript Reston has found, Nixon is flustered into stating that actions are not illegal when undertaken by the president. Breaking the shocked silence in the room, Frost asks gently if Nixon was part of a cover-up, but Brennan interrupts filming and calls for a break. Alone with Nixon, Brennan warns him that any admission will devastate his career, but Nixon feels he cannot continue his denials. When filming resumes, Nixon states that he let the American people down, that he made big mistakes, but they were of the heart and not the head. After the taping, Frost’s team celebrates triumphantly, but Frost, more subdued, returns with Caroline to Nixon’s home to say goodbye before leaving California. Bearing no grudge, Nixon tells Frost he was a worthy opponent. After the broadcasts of the interviews, Frost’s career soars, his investors profit, and Nixon never again holds a public office. 

Distribution Company: Universal Pictures
Production Company: Universal Pictures
Imagine Entertainment
Working Title Films
Relativity Media
Director: Ron Howard (Dir)
  Todd Hallowell (2d unit dir)
  William M. Connor (1st asst dir)
  Scott Schaeffer (1st asst dir, 2d unit)
  Kristen Ploucha (2d asst dir)
  Scott R. Meyers (2d 2d asst dir)
Producer: Brian Grazer (Prod)
  Ron Howard (Prod)
  Tim Bevan (Prod)
  Eric Fellner (Prod)
  Louis Velis (Assoc prod)
  Kathleen McGill (Assoc prod)
  William M. Connor (Assoc prod)
  Peter Morgan (Exec prod)
  Matthew Byam Shaw (Exec prod)
  Karen Kehela Sherwood (Exec prod)
  David Bernardi (Exec prod)
  Debra Hayward (Exec prod)
  Liza Chasin (Exec prod)
  Todd Hallowell (Exec prod)
Writer: Peter Morgan (Scr)

Subject Major: David Frost
  Richard M. Nixon
  Political corruption
  Television programs
  United States--History--20th century
  Watergate Affair, 1972-1974
Subject Minor: Authors
  Beverly Hilton Hotel (Beverly Hills, CA)
  Los Angeles (CA)
  Love affairs
  Ma Maison (Los Angeles, CA)
  Motion picture crews
  San Clemente (CA)
  Surveillance devices
  Television news and information
  Television personalities
  Television producers
  Television sponsors
  Washington (D.C.)
  The White House (Washington, D.C.)

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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