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Frost/Nixon: Interviews as duels of skill and seduction

5 December 2008 2 Comments

We live in the age of the media interview, but it took director Ron Howard to turn an historic Q & A into a movie. Frost/Nixon is based on Peter Morgan’s stage production of the interviews between David Frost and former President Richard Nixon in 1977.  Frost brokered the deal himself, risking money and what reputation he had as a British talk show host with no journalism credentials. Actor Frank Langella playing Richard Nixon is both funny and ironic as he moves like a man in jailhouse chains.  Michael Sheen portrays David Frost as an ambitious featherweight desperate to be a player.  We are not sure what to make of him, but soon we are enjoying his over-the-top performance, forgetting for much of the time that Watergate was a tragedy.

The film captures the behind-the-scene negotiations common to all high-stake verbal exchanges.  In a media interview the Subject and the Interviewer sit down and try to have a conversation. (This is not necessary at hearings and trials where the principals don’t have to pretend to be on good terms.)  Strangers become intimates as the cameras roll.  Nixon was prepared; he knew what he was not going to give up — and that was any admission of guilt for the Watergate cover-up. 

But at the fourth and final interview – after deliberately sucking the life out of interviews one, two and three – something happened to Nixon. Did he throw the game?  Or did he, as sometimes happens under questioning, give way to a truer self?  Frost finally gets down to business. Nixon finally admits he made mistakes, but then roars back with his best line, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” It’s a stunning glimpse into the criminal mind of the 37th president.  While important, the admission didn’t alter the course of events, coming as it did three years after his resignation. This was a big interview moment as a coda.

As Frost/Nixon shows so well, interviews are duels of skill and seduction. Nixon went into the match with a big advantage, having been paid $600,000 for eight hours of his time.  And he used his presidential status to awe and intimidate Frost.  A president in disgrace is still Mr. President. David Frost’s enterprise flattered Nixon’s vanity. Frost had another plus. He was a foreigner and that meant Nixon didn’t have to give it up to any of his enemies from the White House press core. They were the bad guys who had blighted his days to the end.  When he finally gave some account of his complex self, Nixon did it on his own terms. 

Posted by Bodine Williams, the media training and message development specialist.





  • Estelle Steinhauer said:

    I appreciate your description of the interview process as a duel of wit and seduction. You have made me think about this film in terms of how it represents the dynamic of interviewing. Very thought provoking.


  • lila said:

    I saw this movie and was just amazed with the back story of how Frost got the interviews. Yours is an interesting take. Thank you for this post.