As a professor who can often get blank stares when I talk about the 1990s era Gulf War I or Desert Storm, thank you Ron Howard for directing a 1970s period piece frozen in time that is likely to ignite a fire of passion and interest for political journalism. Or maybe I'm just cold living here in Central New York and need a sense of warmth. Today's high is in the 20s.
"Frost/Nixon" renews intellectual interest in political communications history and manages to entertain and rivet the audience at the same time. Syracuse University sponsored a special preview on December 4th that was well attended by budding young journalists and filmmakers from the Newhouse School of Public Communications. The film was a huge hit with our test audience, with a smart screenplay by Peter Morgan, who also wrote "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland," two other Academy-award winning films.
"Frost/Nixon" is an amazing peek into media technology of the 1970s when we were still watching political interviews on television and the at times World Heavyweight boxing match relationship between politician and reporter.
I can't imagine any journalist today putting on the gloves to rope-a-dope with a Bush or Obama.
Frank Langella, a 1959 Syracuse alumnus, literally morphs into Nixon over the course of the movie. Initially one feels startled by how little he resembles Nixon but his acting overcomes the lack of physical resemblance. I don't recall ever seeing such a psychic transformation of a main character in a film. Langella, like Michael Sheen (the Welsh actor is no relation to Martin or Charlie) as David Frost, is a shoo-in to get an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Though Ron Howard completed the film months ago, he did not want to release it before the presidential election of November 4, 2008. The Nixon impeachment angle has obvious parallels with the Bush-Cheney years but Howard wanted people to appreciate that time period on its own merits. The former Opie character did find time to resurrect his TV altar ego in this must-see endorsement of Barack Obama:
Waiting to exhale the film after the election was a smart move. The country was on a high wire act through early November and though the economy still sputters, we're more open now to the intensity of this film on its own merits.
The film is already receiving great reviews and should be a popular Christmas-release movie, as the nation sits and waits for the next commander-in-chief. Check out this original "60 Minutes" interview with David Frost in 1977 where Mike Wallace asks about the possibility that Nixon will stonewall or even lie (gasp) to him:
Here is my "Take Five" interview with Bill Connor (Newhouse '89) who served as a producer on the film, and who Ron Howard emailed the day of the preview to gauge audience interest.
(1) Everybody's reaction to the film is that an interview like this would never happen again. What do you think?
(2) Throughout the film, I was wracking my brain thinking who would be the David Frost to President Barack Obama? I couldn't think of anyone (sorry, Katie Couric!)
BC: That's a really good point. And I've heard that a lot from other people too. I think that's the case. I don't know if there will be another David Frost, who as an interviewer was so tenacious and wanted so badly to get this interview with Nixon. Both sides need to be there: a politician who is willing to come forth and be that vulnerable and an interviewer who is aggressive enough to get it. I'm not sure in this age of soundbites that it would ever happen.
BC: It's really true. We might be looking at a piece of history when we look at those interviews. It might not be repeated.
(3) The film interspersed politics with popular culture so well. I love that it had such a period feel to it. It reminded me of Boogie Nights. Is this where we are going now with journalism? You really have to entertain as well as inform. Recall that David Frost was criticized then for being too soft and pop. Today that seems to be what a lot of journalism is.
BC: I think that is really what we are looking towards. The lines have really been blurred these days between what is entertainment and what is news. When we look back on these Frost/Nixon interviews, we may have been seeing a precursor of that.
(4) Two Syracuse University alumni are featured in Frost/Nixon, one behind the scenes with Bill Connor ('89) as Assistant Director and the principal character, Richard M. Nixon played by Frank Langella ('59). What are you carrying with you today nearly twenty years since graduation from the Newhouse School that you are applying in the film industry today? What's your biggest take-away?
BC: My time at Newhouse instilled in me the love of what I do now. It sowed the seeds and they took root. In a business like filmmaking, journalism, or advertising, these are hard businesses to break into. You really need a strong drive and that is what was planted in me at Newhouse. It planted in me the love of wanting to do it, and it kept growing once I left.
(5) Since the presidential election, there has been a sense of renewed interest in politics and journalism. Do you think the interest will last, particularly among younger people for politics and journalism?
BC: I noticed the excitement among the young people at the movie screening, their interest in the film and their insightful, thoughtful questions about it. Today we have a new generation in new times and with new thinkers. Much like the seeds were planted in me at Newhouse, I can't imagine that these seeds wouldn't take root among these kids and grow once they graduate and continue on into their adult life.
WILLIAM M. CONNOR's (Associate Producer/First Assistant Director) early production work includes serving as second assistant director on the feature films Ransom, directed by Ron Howard and starring Mel Gibson; James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson; Randa Haines' Dance With Me, starring Vanessa Williams; Ron Howard's EDtv, starring Matthew McConaughey; and Gary Sinyor's The Bachelor, starring Chris O'Donnell and Renée Zellweger.
Connor's work as a first assistant director includes Nick Cassavetes' John Q, starring Denzel Washington; Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss; and Ron Howard's The Missing, Cinderella Man and The Da Vinci Code.
A graduate of Syracuse University, where he studied communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Connor entered the entertainment industry as a production assistant before moving to assistant director. He has been honored with a Director's Guild of America Award for his work on Howard's team for Apollo 13. He has been part of three other DGA Award-nominated teams.
Connor is currently working with Howard as associate producer and first assistant director on the film adaptation of "Angels & Demons."