When Judge Victor Valdivia does something, that means it's not illegal, just grossly immoral.
The truth behind the drama.
The release of Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard's dramatization of the 1977 interviews between disgraced former president Richard Nixon and British talk-show host David Frost, has finally led to the DVD release of the original interviews themselves. Though excerpts from these interviews have been used in various Nixon and Watergate documentaries and TV shows over the years, the full five-part interview special hasn't been aired since its original broadcast. It consists of five 75-minute episodes, each of which covers a specific area of Nixon's presidency: "Watergate," "Nixon and the World," "War at Home and Abroad," "The Final Days," and "The Last Roundup," which encompasses various pieces not included in the other episodes. For history and political buffs, especially those with an interest in Watergate, they are essential viewing, but how about others? Will those who only have a passing familiarity with Nixon's presidency or those who were attracted by Frost/Nixon be interested?
Frankly, it's hard to see how. These are lengthy, dense conversations, full of references to events that were fairly common knowledge in the late '70s but are somewhat (or even completely) forgotten today. Anyone used to the talking points and sound bites of the 24-hour news networks may find these rather slow and impenetrable. In many ways, this is the last interview of an era when politicians and journalists were expected to speak in complete sentences and answer questions directly, even if not always honestly. Similarly, anyone expecting the kind of shocking revelations seen in Frost/Nixon will be disappointed. Frost's style wasn't for "gotcha" interviews, and Nixon was far too smart to fall for any trap set by any journalist. This is more like a debate, where the best moments occur when one of the participants, more often than not Nixon, demonstrates flaws in logic or gaps in reciting facts. Viewers, however, will have to listen carefully to the dense torrents of words and recollections, and they will have to have some familiarity with Nixon's presidency and the history of the '60s and the '70s in order to get a full understanding of the interviews. When one show, for instance, devotes a good 10 minutes to a discussion of Nixon's failed Supreme Court nominees, anyone who has never heard of the names Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell will be mystified and should definitely hit the "Pause" button while checking Wikipedia.
However, viewers who do come in to Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews armed with a detailed knowledge of the political and historical context of the era will find these fascinating. The actual details of the Carswell and Haynsworth rejections, for instance, are ultimately irrelevant; what's important is the justification Nixon gives for why he made the decisions he made and why he feels they were rejected. In these answers, he crystallizes the notion that defined his presidency, if not his political career: That he was at war with an elite Eastern liberal establishment, represented by the Democratic Congress, the media (particularly The Washington Post), and mid-level bureaucrats scattered throughout government. He harps on these themes constantly in almost every answer he gives, urging Frost and his viewing audience to keep them in mind when assessing his presidency. Because this is not a talking point manufactured in a PR session that can be easily abandoned but the core belief that drove his every action, it can be astounding watching the elaborate contortions he sometimes must attempt to justify some of his actions. In the "Watergate" episode, for instance, he repeatedly insists that launching a cover-up for political reasons, as opposed to criminal ones, is not a crime in and of itself. As a tortuous bit of legal sophistry, this rivals Clinton's definition of the word "is." In the "War" episode, Nixon makes his infamous statement that when a president undertakes or orders illegal actions, they are not illegal if he feels that they are in the national interest. When Nixon makes statements like these, Frost doesn't necessarily attack him, but then he doesn't really need to. It's enough to let them speak for themselves and allow viewers to see what Nixon's thought process really is. This is the main reason these interviews are so invaluable to political historians: the lies and obfuscations Nixon tells are just as revealing as the truth he's withholding. You will need to know a lot about the subject matter, however, to really understand that.
Liberation Entertainment has released the five programs in a handsomely packaged two-disc set, and while they did a good job with the shows themselves, it's hard not to wish for more. The full-screen transfer looks good for thirty-year-old videotape interviews, although there are some video glitches and sound dropouts scattered throughout these shows. Curiously, the liner notes promise both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes, but the discs only come with Stereo, and it's hard to see what good a 5.1 mix would do with a pair of men talking. The biggest letdown is that there are no extras at all. The six hours seen here (not 400 minutes, as asserted on the DVD cover) were culled from over twenty-eight hours of interviews conducted over several weeks. Are there no surviving outtakes that could have been included on this set? Even minor snippets could have helped give a more detailed picture of how these interviews were conducted. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that Sir David Frost and his crew do not have some significant memories and thoughts to share on this event some thirty years later. In order to get a small taste of those, you'll have to watch a very brief featurette on the Frost/Nixon DVD, but it's hardly long enough to really put these interviews in the real historical context they deserve. Even a simple text timeline, glossary, or essay would have helped immeasurably.
It's that lack of extras, ultimately, that makes Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews really only appealing to a specific audience. Audiences in 1977 would have been as familiar with names like Haldeman and Ehrlichman as today's viewers are with names like Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice, but today, unless you really know this story well, you will find much of this confusing. Some well-assembled extras could have helped modern viewers understand these references, but sadly the set doesn't come with any. Coupled with the fact that these are not the dramatic shoutfests of today's TV political interviews (let alone those depicted in Frost/Nixon itself) makes it hard to recommend this set to anyone who isn't already a huge political history buff.
For political history buffs, Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews is definitely not guilty. For anyone else, it would be better to read a few books on Nixon and Watergate first.
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