Once upon a time, there was a man named Richard Nixon. He became president of the United States, did some good things, did some bad, and is now entirely synonymous with the word "Watergate". The Watergate scandal is what sunk his presidency, an event where he abused the powers of his office in order to try and cover up investigation into his wiretapping of political opponents. In essence, he decided that, as president, he did not need to operate within the law, and it was this belief which ended his presidency.
Frost/Nixon takes place right after Nixon has left office, with the United States still clamoring for some admission of guilt or an apology. The main focus of the movie is on the interviews that led to this apology, as well as an analysis of the men involved. The spotlight particularly shines on David Frost, the glitzy British talk-show host who serves as interviewer, and Richard Nixon, the man who was once president and is now the interviewee.
The Enigma of Richard Nixon
What this movie did especially well, I thought, was to capture the peculiar character of Richard Nixon. Here is a man who is spectacularly intelligent. Though he is generally frowned upon now, his presidency was not without accomplishments. It is arguable that, without Nixon, Communist China would have remained closely tied with the Soviet Union, which might have extended the Cold War for dozens of years if not changed the course of history. It is also notable that, despite the immense criticism levied upon him by the American citizenry, Nixon did more than any other president to win the war in Vietnam; through sheer grit he may have attained complete victory if Watergate had not ended his term of office.
And yet, despite the sympathetic aspect to his character, the movie does not shy away from Nixon's more negative aspects. Nixon is shown to be greedy when he insists on pushing the cost of the interviews higher than their already monumental drain on Frost's pockets. His insecurities shine through, particularly in one powerful scene where Nixon and Frost speak privately together. And his opportunistic tendency manifests itself in his constant attempts to mess with Frost in order to utilize the interviews as a method of vindicating his tarnished public image.
As can be gathered, Frost/Nixon does an excellent job of showing what made Nixon a powerful, confident, and intelligent individual. One might expect a typical attack on Nixon going into it, but the movie manages to surpass this expectation by providing a more balanced and complicated view. The acting of Frank Langella helps to perfect this and add incredible depth to this depiction of the president; he was even nominated for Best Actor for the role.
The Background Drama
Another aspect of the interviews that the movie focuses on is just how difficult, expensive, and controversial it was to have the interviews happen at all. It cannot be emphasized enough how incensed the average person was with Nixon after he left office, particularly after he was given public pardon by the following President Ford. People wanted him to go to court, wanted him dead... He symbolized everything that had gone wrong with the government, which made him a massive target for incredible hatred that was, to a certain extent, justified. Consequently, part of what made it so difficult to have the interviews happen at all was that people would only support the interviews if they resulted in a public confession/apology by Nixon. And that was in no way guaranteed.
Nixon had no intention of apologizing, believing utterly that his every action in presidency was justified, including Watergate. Thus Frost and his team were placed under an enormous amount of stress as they sought to prod Nixon into blurting out a statement that would condemn him. This pressure manifested in the cost of the interviews, the difficulty of getting funding from companies that didn't believe Frost could do it, the disturbing possibility of Nixon coming out of the interviews with his reputation looking much better than it did before, and the damage that failure could cause to the reputations of those involved if they failed to obtain an apology or slip of the tongue.
Overall, I thought this movie gripping and hard to look away from. Through the preparations for the interviews and the interviews themselves, you are held to your chair, uncertain how they will possibly get Nixon to concede. It ends up cast into a sort of personal duel of wordplay and character between Frost and Nixon, giving a depth to both of their characters which makes the movie even more compelling. Being history, one knows that the interviews end in Frost's favor, but even armed with that knowledge this does not prevent the movie from being a harrowing step-by-step of the dramatic and difficult lead up to that pivotal moment.
My only warning is that, if you have zero knowledge of Watergate or the general events of the time period (early 70's), some aspects and questions of the interviews might go completely over your head. I already knew of this stuff, so it is hard for me to gauge if having no knowledge will ruin the movie for you. But I doubt it. Even if Nixon and Frost mean nothing to you, it is an interesting study of two complicated characters, their verbal repartee, and their impact on the world.