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The One-Line Summary: Three years after his disgraced exit from the American presidency, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) decides to do a tell-all interview on television and surprises everyone by choosing lightweight British celebrity journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) for the job, expecting an easy round of softball questions but finds something all together different when the time finally comes.
The Two-Line Blurb: Directed by Ron Howard, this slightly fictionalized account of Nixon’s confession to what he had been accused of for years became a milestone in television journalism and while the participants in it at the time had no idea the weight it would carry going in, the drama that unfolded is supremely captured in this taunt, well-made talkie-thriller. Told from Frost’s point of view, the bulk of the drama is about whether or not Frost can handle the interview, deliver the right questions, and get the former president to speak candidly, with Frost putting every cent he owns in paying for the exclusive meeting, something that nearly broke him.
The Three-Line Set-up: This moment is all about the confession and begins when Nixon has agreed to the interview and both sides have worked out the long list of stipulations. There are three separate interviews to be recorded and the first two are dominated by Nixon who hijacks the time and uses the platform as a vehicle to deliver one-sided testimonials and exonerating accounts of his major political achievements, leaving Frost’s team frustrated with the avoidance of the plan. On the night before the third interview, Nixon drunkenly calls Frost and admits that he knows that this last talk will be the defining conversation and assures the journalist that he will come out on top.
The Four-Line Moment: On the last day of recording, Frost takes the initiative and ambushes the former president with some very damning evidence, which leads Nixon to admit he had done some unethical practices, much to the shock of everyone’s staff, on both sides. Momentarily stunned by the revelation, Frost quickly recovers and asks for clarification, prompting the now infamous line, “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” There’s a long silence before Nixon continues and even recovers a bit, a feeling of relief in his tone as the weight of that unimaginable burden is lifted. The moment is the centerpiece of the story and the point of no return for the once-shamed president, and even though Nixon’s team tries to stop it, it’s too too late and the rest is history.
The Five-Word Review: A top-notch, political drama.
Peter Morgan (screenplay), Peter Morgan (play)
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon