Thursday, May 7, 2009

On DVD: "Frost/Nixon: The Complete Invterviews"

David Frost’s 1977 interviews with former President Richard Nixon were, at one time, merely the most viewed (and arguably most important) political interview in history. These days, they’re a cottage industry. Writer Peter Morgan dramatized the interviews (and the events leading up to them) in his brilliant play Frost/Nixon, which had successful and critically acclaimed runs in London and on Broadway. The play featured Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon; both men reprised their stage roles for Ron Howard’s excellent film adaptation last year. Sometime in between, Frost published a book (with the same title) of his reflections on the events, while Vivendi Entertainment hurried out a DVD of the Watergate portion of the interview, timed to coincide with Frost/Nixon’s theatrical release. Now, as the film hits DVD, Vivendi has gone back to the well and released the full, six-plus hours as Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews.

Even that title is a bit of a misnomer, since 28 hours of interviews were filmed in March of ’77; what they mean is that these two discs present the full six-plus hours that were broadcast as “The Nixon Interviews with David Frost.” They are presented in five parts, each tackling a different topic and running about 75 minutes (90 minutes minus commercials); the first four aired in May of that year, with a fifth assembly of additional material airing later.

The first part is the most famous: “Watergate.” It begins with a 1982 introduction by Frost for a public television airing that year (the gloriously kitschy 70s graphics that follow are the only introduction for the other four parts). Frost the does some set-up, using a voice-over accompanying archival footage and photos, and then the interview begins.

The entire series of chats were shot in the Monarch Bay, California home of Nixon supporters Mr. and Mrs. Harold H. Smith; the original hope was to shoot in Nixon’s San Clemente home, but nearby Coast Guard transmitters would have interfered with the television equipment. However, Mr. and Mrs. Smith appear to live somewhere near a major flight pattern; several times in each interview, the sound of commercial airplanes flying overhead can be clearly heard, sometimes to such a degree that Frost and Nixon raise their voices slightly to remain audible. That issue aside, it makes for a looser and more conversational environment than shooting in a conventional television studio.

Part one begins with Frost suggesting a “blow-by-blow” account of the Watergate cover-up and all that it entails. Nixon is almost immediately on the defensive, explaining the difference between a “good” cover-up and a “bad” cover-up—you see, it’s only a cover-up if it’s covering up something illegal, and it’s only obstruction of justice if justice is successfully obstructed. Frost is at his absolute best in this segment, skillfully negotiating the spin of his formidable opponent, who refers to him, without sarcasm, as “the attorney for the prosecution.” For his part, Nixon certainly plays the part of the defense attorney, frequently adding in extra language and saying things like “I would argue that I meant…” as opposed to just saying “I meant.” Frost asks tough questions (“Why didn’t you stop it?”); Nixon mostly keeps his cool, changing uncomfortable subjects with pronouncements like “You’ve stated your conclusion, and I’ve stated my view. Now let’s get on with the rest of it.”

The segment is fascinating on its own, even more so having seen the dramatization and having some knowledge of what was happening off-camera; at one point, my wife pointed at the screen and noted, “That’s the thing, that’s the breakthrough,” as seen in the play and film. That “breakthrough” is the moment where Frost reveals a heretofore unreported conversation between Nixon and Charles Colson about payoffs to Watergate burglar Howard Hunt; as Frost clicks off no less than sixteen different references to “the money,” the camera holds on the former President’s face, and then Nixon loses his shit. He’s clearly rattled and angry, and you see him try to make a joke in the moments afterwards because he realizes how he’s coming off. It’s an intense, dramatic moment.

Even more remarkable is the closing section, where Frost all but implores Nixon to make the apology that the American people want and need. Throughout the interview, Nixon has made slight reference to “mistakes,” but Frost asks, “Would you go further than ‘mistakes’?” He leans forward in his chair, speaking openly and plainly to him. “I think that people hear it, and I think if you don’t say it, you’ll be haunted for the rest of your life.” Nixon’s “confession” is preceded by a litany of qualifiers and stutter-steps, but the words are there: “I let you down… I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.” It’s an exhaustingly personal moment. This is riveting television.

The remaining interviews can’t help but suffer in comparison to the tremendous emotion and power of that first part, and frankly, this might be the set’s only serious misstep. I understand why Frost and associates chose to air the Watergate segment first—it was the biggest draw, and since they were self-syndicating and taking a huge financial risk, they had to hook their audience right at the beginning. But both on-screen and (if Morgan’s writings are to be believed) off, the Watergate interview is the climax of the piece, and Nixon’s candor was quite possibly the result of the hours and hours of footage shot before it. To watch it first robs it of some of its considerable power. The only other warning about this piece (and the entire interview, really) is that it might not hurt to brush up on your history beforehand; Americans were so intimately familiar with the tiniest details of Watergate, with exactly who everyone was and what they did, that Frost and his producers didn’t need to bring them up to speed. Modern audiences, however, might need a quick refresher course.

The second part of the interview, “Nixon and the World,” feels, in places, like what it is—an opportunity for Nixon to trumpet his considerable achievements as a world traveler and statesman in order to offset all that troublesome talk of Watergate and resignation. We see and hear about his trips to China, his visits with Mao, his dealings with Brezhnev (and comparisons of that Russian leader to Khruschev, his predecessor), his relations with Israel and Pakistan. This section does get a little “inside baseball,” and the viewer’s enjoyment and interest in it is, in all probability, directly proportional to the breadth and depth of said viewer’s knowledge of world affairs in that period.

The former President, however, is at his best here. We sometimes sense him enjoying the dropping of names, but he does spin a good yarn; he’s a gifted storyteller (see his impressions of Mao and his decreasing health), a keen observer, and occasionally quite witty (as when he quotes The Godfather while talking about Israel). And, in some ways, he does what he wanted to do here; as we listen to his exhaustively detailed explanations for his strategies of international relations, he puts himself into an indisputably stronger light. Part two isn’t nearly as dramatic as part one, but it is quite valuable as an oral history from someone who was there; it also puts the Watergate interview into valuable context (both in terms of the presidency and the interview itself).

Part three deals with “War at Home and Abroad,” and basically asks the key question of Vietnam: was it worth it? Nixon and Frost talk at great length about that war, and the specifically troubling elements of it (particularly the expansion into Cambodia). This is one of the few places in the final cut of the interviews where we see the discomfort and unpreparedness of Frost that is such a major element of the Frost/Nixon play and film; during the debate on Cambodia, Nixon cannily puts Frost on the defensive by questioning the skill of the reporter’s researchers (he says he’d “be very surprised” if they missed some facts he feels to be relevant “because you pay those fellows a lot of money”). It clearly rattles Frost; you see him squirm a little.

He fires back by hitting harder in the second half of the program, particularly when Nixon tries to compare his Presidency to Lincoln’s during the Civil War (“the nation was torn apart, ideologically”), an analogy that Frost rightfully challenges. They discuss intelligence gathering against dissenters and protestors (the “Huston Plan”), which laid the seeds for black ops, burglaries, “the plumbers,” and the targeting of Daniel Ellsberg (who Nixon spitefully refers to as a “punk”). For all the vile territory that’s covered, Nixon is refreshingly honest about his own paranoia and temper—and how much of both are fueled by his personal insecurities (“there’s a love/hate complex in all of us,” he notes). But he doesn’t do his reputation any favors when he proclaims that protest and dissent prolonged the war—“had it not been for the division in America, the war would have ended one to two years sooner.” So he kept the war going out of, what, spite? It’s a sad commentary on Nixon’s legacy that this is a perfectly probable explanation.

“The Final Days,” part four, deals with not only Watergate but some of the other ugly scandals of Nixon’s aborted second term, including the U.S.-supported Chilean coup d'état of 1973 and the investigation and resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew (Nixon claims Agnew was singled out because he was a conservative and critical of the media). The interview’s juiciest segment is his bitter condemnation of the media—particularly Woodward and Bernstein, whom he never mentions by name. He takes a quick and bitchy dig at the duo in the Watergate interview; here, he dismisses them as “those who write history as fiction with third-hand knowledge,” calls their work “contemptible journalism,” and tries to blame their book The Final Days for his wife Pat’s stroke. I would imagine that he couldn’t have been the reporters’ biggest fan, but in snipping at them, the former President makes himself look, somehow, even more petty and small.

The most interesting passages of the fourth interview come near its close, as he tells, in his own words, the famous story about praying with Kissinger and vividly recalls the day of his resignation. He also touches on being pardoned—how it happened, what it meant, and if it was a proper punishment for his admitted mistakes (“No one can know how it feels to resign the presidency. Is that enough? Probably not”).

The final show, “The Last Roundup,” aired after the first four; in his introduction, Frost explains that “there was a great deal of material that we felt shouldn’t be excluded from the record” merely because it didn’t fit into the themes of the first four shows. It begins with a key moment from the Frost/Nixon film—the first question of the first day, “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?” We see, as portrayed in the film, how Nixon fillibusters here, but we also see him sweat. His attempt to explain away the 18 1/2 minute gap gets a lot of play here, as does an extended, slightly ridiculous conversation about the choice of Senator John C. Stennis to review the tapes (Stennis was “slightly deaf,” as Frost delights in saying more than once). This exchange leads to a priceless moment where Frost repeats a joke about Stennis; Nixon’s stone-faced reaction is worth the cost of the disc alone.

Nixon also gets the chance to further grind his axe against the press (“The greatest concentration of power in the U.S. today… is in the media. And it’s too much”); when Frost asks him why he thinks the Eastern Establishment media was against him, he replies, “I’m not a very lovable man.” There are also intriguing discussions of how the China visit came to be, his thoughts on Russia, and his relationship with Kissinger; his story about John and Martha Mitchell is interesting, but an oddly anticlimactic choice to close out this epic interview.

It may peak a little early, but Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews is a penetrating and important piece of television history. Well-shot (director Jørn Winther and his camera operators always seem to know when to push in slow for maximum effect) and seamlessly assembled, this is a fascinating portrait of one of our young nation’s most tragically flawed figures—and it’s an invaluable companion piece to Ron Howard’s terrific film.

"Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews" is now available on DVD.

No comments:

Post a Comment