An interview with a leader who did not want to be

Directed by Ron Howard – 2008 – USA, UK – 122 min


2024 February 27 | by Arduino Mancini Asking questions - Boss and Staff member - Leadership - Negotiation - Teamwork

It is 1974 and Republican Richard Nixon, president of the United States of America in his second term, resigns from office following the investigation into the Watergate scandal that broke two years earlier.

At the root of the scandal were the abusive wiretaps conducted at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee by people linked to the Republican Party; the scandal takes its name from the Watergate Complex, in which the Watergate Hotel, where is located the wiretapping that kicks off the affair.

The investigation that followed the wiretaps led to a request for impeachment of the president and subsequent formal accusation.

David Frost, a British writer, TV host, and producer with no experience in the political field asks Richard Nixon for an interview offering him a decidedly attractive fee; only 3 years later, in 1977, Nixon decides to accept.

For the former president, the opportunity is quite a good one; to cash in on a lot of money with a series of interviews run by a person without substantial experience in politics, and the opportunity to explain his reasons and rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the public: perhaps by getting back into the game somehow.

The interviews become an opportunity to revisit the whole Nixon administration: Vietnam, Cambodia, but also the successes in China, the USSR, and domestic politics. And especially Watergate, since Frost’s real goal is to succeed where everyone had failed: to get Richard Nixon to confess on live TV that he acted illegally and betrayed the American people.

To do this, Frost rounds up quite knowledgeable staff, while Nixon decides not to employ any special caution, confident that he will make a meal of his opponent.

How will things turn out? Will Frost succeed? How?

I guess you will have to find out for yourself.

Now take a break and watch the trailer.




How to watch the film

The film is the adaptation of Peter Morgan‘s stage play of the same name; not surprisingly, the theatrical atmosphere permeates much of the film.

There are many interesting insights.

First, the overconfidence with which an entertainment star with no experience in political journalism, decides to embark on a venture that everyone before him has failed in.

To succeed he teams up with three staffers: John Birt, Bob Zelnick, and Jim Reston, the latter decisive in putting Nixon on the ropes on the Watergate issue.

How will Frost manage the three staff members? Loosely at first, making decisions alone and without involving them in defining the interview management strategy.

Later, when things seem to be turning for the worst Frost, who offers in the film the feeling that he thought he could interview the former U.S. president as if he were a sports champion, decides to resort to all available resources: himself, finally beginning to prepare adequately, and his staff.

In the end, he will find the key to making Richard Nixon capitulate.

A lesson that can be useful to anyone with responsibility for managing people.

What about the interviewee figure? Superbly played by Frank Langella, he comes across as arrogant, still convinced that he has acted in the interests of the American people, greedy for money, and with a reasonable amount of contempt for David Frost.

As the interviews continued and as the two protagonists met on different occasions, the feeling I got was that for Nixon the round of interviews gradually changed purpose: from an opportunity to regain the public trust and somehow get back into the game of politics they turned into a chance to say what he feels inside, to open up and rid himself of a burden that has become unsustainable.

All thanks to Frost for Nixon’s confession, as most believe?

Sure, the host was good, but the feeling the film (and the original interview…) leaves is that the former president was waiting for nothing more than an opportunity to make peace, primarily with himself.

Just before apologizing, Richard Nixon stated that in pursuing the mandate a leader may commit questionable, even illegal actions; aware of this, he had not hesitated to act in the nation’s interest.

One more reflection on the leadership topic.

Just before apologizing, Richard Nixon stated that in the pursuit of the mandate a leader may commit questionable, even illegal actions; aware of this, he had not hesitated to act in the nation’s interest.

This statement is only seemingly contradictory to the confession, as both represent different sides of the same coin: a typical situation where the leader must deal with the cognitive dissonance that imprisons his decisions.

Something to think about carefully.




Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall

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