Frost/Nixon and the Power of Ambition

Frost Nixon ETB ScreenwritingThe film Frost/Nixon is one of the best of a dispiriting lot this movie-going Holiday Season.  Although there have been some remarkable performances in the current crop of films, many of the stories on screen have been weak and unsatisfying.

In contrast, Frost/Nixon has it all– towering performances and a tight script that builds to a satisfying finish.  The film is the story of an epic battle between two Power of Ambition characters.  The characters and film are pitch perfect.

Power of Ambition characters fear failure in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the world. The worst thing that could happen to these characters is being publicly “unmasked” for the fraud, failure or loser they fear they are.

Image is everything to these characters.  They are terrified of any kind of public embarrassment, becoming unpopular or appearing to be of no public or social  importance. They are always keeping score and worry that they will fall behind somehow. It is nearly impossible for these character to admit their mistakes or acknowledge their failings.

In their worst moments these characters exhibit manic depressive swings— obsessive self-serving action punctuated by nearly paralyzing shame, despair, self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and failure.

The following scene from Frost/Nixon articulate the Power of Ambition character’s fear perfectly.  The scene is intimate, personal and comes at just the right moment in the story.  Before their film taping session Nixon calls Frost’s hotel room late at night:

NIXON
We’ve sat in chairs opposite one another, talking for hours, it seems– days on end– and yet I’ve hardly gotten to know you. One of my people– ah– as part of the preparation of this interview–did a profile of you, and I’m sorry to say– I only got around to reading it tonight. (Nixon looks in the file: sees evidence or Frost’s humble childhood)  There’s some interesting stuff in there. The Methodist background, modest circumstances. Then off to a grand university. Full of richer, posher types. What was it? Oxford?

FROST
Cambridge.

NIXON
Did the snobs there look down on you,too?

FROST
I .. I ..

NIXON
Of course they did. That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost? No matter how high we get, they still look down at us ..

FROST
I–. really– don’t know what you’re talking about ..

NIXON
Yes, you do. C’mon. You know exactly. No matter how many awards– or how many column inches are written about you– or how high the elected office is for me– it still isn’t enough, am I right? We still feel like the little man? The loser they told us we were? A hundred times. The smart-asses at college. The high-ups. The well-born.The people who’s respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now? Why we fight for every inch. Scrambling our way up, in undignified fashion, whatever hillock or mountain it is, why we never tire, why we find energy or motivation when any sensible person would lie down, or relax.  (Nixon looks in the file: articles about FROST’s failure in America. The network show being canceled)  If we’re honest for a minute. If we reflect privately just for a moment– if we allow ourselves … a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here now? The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun? Into the limelight? Back onto the winner’s podium? Because we could feel itslipping away? We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust. Humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that. We’re not going to let that happen. Either of us. We’re going to show those bums, and make them choke on our continued success.Our continued headlines. Our continued awards, power and glory. We’re going to make those motherfuckers choke. Am I right?

FROST
You are. Except only ONE of us can win.

NIXON
And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got. Because the limelight can only shine on ONE of us. And for the other, it’ll be the ‘wilderness’. With nothing and no one for company, but those voices ringing in our heads.

It is my belief, facts are less important than the emotional truth of a story.  Just because it never really happened that way doesn’t mean it isn’t true!

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