NOTE: This spoiler sent in by Kate who says... "This movie might sound boring, but it is AWESOME. It played like a thriller - will Nixon confess, or won't he confess? And Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are great. This was a very entertaining film!"
For a quick background, the movie is based on a series of 1977 interviews between television personality David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) and former President Richard Nixon (played by Frank Langella). Frost’s interview was the first granted by Nixon after he resigned the presidency. 45 million people watched, and it still holds the record today for the most-watched political program of all time.
The movie opens with a series of real-life news reports from the 1970s, reviewing Nixon’s role in bugging the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., in order to keep tabs on what the Democrats were doing leading up to the 1972 elections. Except, of course, the men hired to do the bugging were busted during the break-in, Nixon and his men conspired to cover up the break-in and then, whoops, did not erase the tapes recording their conversations. When the tapes were discovered in 1974, Nixon resigned.
Frost finishes taping an episode of his talk show, Frost Across Australia. He and his producers then watch the live broadcast of Nixon waving goodbye (as in, his legendary double-peace-sign wave) from the steps of his helicopter. Frost asks his producer what the worldwide TV ratings would be for that moment, and is told “bigger than we will ever see.”
A few weeks later, Frost is back in his native England, at the London Weekend Television office, the company that employs him. He brings up the possibility of interviewing Nixon, and everyone thinks he’s crazy. It is important to note that Frost is sort of known as a “fluff” interviewer, as in he does not ask very hard-hitting questions. He also drinks. And parties. And sleeps with lots of pretty ladies. So his producers have a legitimate right to laugh because Richard Nixon would never agree to be interviewed by someone like him…or would he?
Cut to Nixon at his vacation home in California. His advisor, Swifty Lazar, mentions that Frost has made an offer to interview him, and is willing to pay him $600,000 for his time. Lazar says that CBS is only offering $350,000. Oh, and by the way, Lazar says, you’ll nail him to the wall. He’s a lightweight. And we get brief scenes of Lazar bullying Frost into offering the $600,000 his original offer was $500,000. So Nixon is sold. And now Frost has to pony up this massive amount of money from his own pocket, because initially, no U.S. television station is willing to carry the interviews being that they were outbid by a Brit and are mad about it.
Frost sells all his shares in London Weekend Television and calls in favors from wealthy celebrities he had previously interviewed. He raises all the money, pays Nixon, hires two investigators named Zelnick and Reston to help him come up with questions, and the interviews begin. They are finally sold to a British TV station as four 90-minute specials covering four different topics Foreign policy, Domestic policy, Nixon’s personal life and Watergate.
Nixon arrives with his former chief-of-staff, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), who warns Frost that any questions deemed not to his liking will be immediately cut off. The seconds tick down to when the cameras will first start rolling, and as the sound technician begins the count from 5 to 1, Nixon asks Frost if he had an enjoyable evening. Frost says he did. And right as the count reaches 1, Nixon asks, “Did you do any fornicating?” The cameras flip on and Frost is speechless. Nixon smiles, satisfied. And so goes the first three series of interviews Nixon using huge chunks of time to make long, winding, boring speeches about random things and Frost struggling to interrupt, to ask actual questions of him. It is obvious Nixon is in his element, and Frost is not.
Zelnick and Reston who are American, it should be noted, and are angry with Nixon like all Americans were get angry with Frost for the fact that Nixon is using this time to pretty much exonerate himself of any wrongdoing. Frost decides that the crew should break for Easter, as they have spent weeks together doing these interviews. He will use this time to regroup.
Four days before they are to begin the final interview on Watergate, Frost wakes up to a phone call in the middle of the night. He answers by saying, “cheeseburgers,” thinking it is the hotel’s room service, asking him if he wants anything to eat. Instead, it is Nixon a very drunk Nixon. Frost quickly wakes up and listens to Nixon moan about his life how he is just like Frost, how he began his political career as a man from the wrong side of the tracks and now everyone who is still on the wrong side of the tracks hates him for hitting it big. He also tells Frost that he knows the final interview will make one’s career and break the other’s. He hangs up.
Frost has an epiphany it’s not just about the viewers and the money. He has to get Nixon to confess to his involvement in Watergate. If he doesn’t, not only will the interviews not be watched and he will go bankrupt, but the American people who were hoping for some closure to the scandal will lose faith in him and their government. He calls Zelnick and Reston and they get to work.
When the group meets for the final interview, Frost mentions the phone call to Nixon. Like most drunk-dialers, however, Nixon asks, “What phone call?” Brennan overhears and warns Frost that he will “break him” if anything goes wrong during this final interview. The cameras flip on, and both Frost and Nixon are silent, Nixon waiting for a question and Frost weighing his options. Finally, Frost looks up and asks, “Why didn’t you just erase the tapes?” The room pretty much explodes, as Nixon looks at him, stunned that he asked him an actual question, Brennan comes blasting in and breaks up the interview and the technicians, Zelnick and Reston get very excited at what is happening.
Brennan tries to break it up, but Frost isn’t having it. Nixon stutters something about not being involved, and then about the bugging being “necessary,” and Frost gets very angry and asks, “So you’re saying, just because you’re the President, you can do something illegal?” And Nixon finally yells back, “No when the President does it, it is NOT illegal.” The room goes silent. Frost sits back and says, “I’m sorry?” He can’t believe it. And the cameramen got it all on tape.
Brennan pulls Nixon out into the hall and tells him he can call it off, right now. But Nixon has realized something. He is tired of lying, he says, and he let the American people down. He thanks Brennan for his help, but he did this on his own, and he needs to make up for it on his own. The interviews begin again, with Nixon admitting to the Watergate cover-up, and apologizing to the American people on camera for letting them down. When they are finally edited and shown on TV, the interviews are a massive success, and Frost earns 10% of the advertising profits from the broadcasts. This makes him a millionaire, and a hero in the eyes of many who were waiting for the apology Nixon just gave.
The film ends with Frost visiting Nixon at his California home after the interviews air. Frost thanks him for his time. Just as he turns to go, Nixon asks him if they really had a conversation on the phone and, if they did, what they talked about. Frost pauses, and then says, “Cheeseburgers,” before walking away.
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