Frost/Nixon, the hot play in New York, makes for a highly enjoyable evening at the theater. The lead characters, famed talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) and the exiled and disgraced Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, recently awarded a Tony), are wonderfully acted; the staging is simple but effective; there is a clear plotline with a dramatic ending.
But the play, the talented Peter Morgan’s dramatization of Frost’s wildly popular series of televised interviews, in 1977, with the former President, profoundly misleads as it entertains. Langella’s Nixon is not the Richard Nixon of history, and the ending significantly alters what actually happened. It doesn’t always matter when entertainment collides with history–but in this case it does.
The way these extraordinary interviews came about is accurately set forth: Frost, faced with a career on the skids, has the wit and the nerve to persuade Nixon, through Hollywood superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, to grant him a series of interviews, to be aired on an international syndicate of stations. Nixon, his reputation in ruins and facing large legal debts, agrees. After lengthy negotiations, Nixon received a then-whopping $600,000, plus 20 percent of the profits from selling the interviews. (The contract also stipulated that no more than 25 percent of the time could be devoted to Watergate.) Thus, Nixon and Frost were in business together, and they had the same goals–to restore their respective standings and, in Nixon’s case, to make money. Frost, a Brit presumably lacking deep knowledge of American politics, was just the instrument Nixon needed for his methodical and relentless effort to regain respectability–to be viewed as an elder statesman. Frost (a far cleverer man than portrayed) was useful because he was essentially an entertainer with scant experience as a hard-nosed interviewer.
The difficulties begin almost from the opening moments of the play. The first problem is that Nixon comes across as an expansive, witty, likable man for whom the audience ends up rooting. Langella, an accomplished ham, has Nixon’s voice, walk, shaking jowls and posture (hunched shoulders, body slightly bent forward, arms hanging at his side somewhat ape-like) dead-on, and before long, he convinces us that he is Nixon. In a nice touch, Langella/Nixon even rubs his leg occasionally, before the audience is told he suffers from phlebitis.
Yet the play transforms brooding, tormented, often angry, extremely introverted and socially awkward Nixon into a figure who readily and humorously, if still somewhat clumsily, chats with Frost between takes in the interviews. Langella’s Nixon is a lot of fun. The real Nixon did try to banter with interviewers, but he was virtually incapable of small talk and was not known for his humor. Though the play does give the audience whiffs of Nixon’s remnant anger and bitterness, particularly toward those who’d been born to privilege, it lightens up his dark nature and presents a Nixon who never was. The real Nixon was riveting enough, and would have made for gripping drama, if perhaps a less amusing evening. So sympathetic a figure has Morgan/Langella made Nixon that when he utters the chilling line, “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal,” the audience laughs.