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.
The next problem is the incompleteness of what the play covers. While this reflects the actual interviews, the larger picture becomes increasingly necessary as memories fade and the number of people who did not experience this period keeps growing. It would have been helpful if Morgan had given the audience more context. Frost’s Watergate interview covers only Nixon’s role in the cover-up of the famous break-in of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. Nixon’s broad-scale and alarming assaults on the Constitution are absent. For example, the break-in of the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers–the discovery of which Nixon was far more worried about–goes unmentioned. Also omitted is the extent to which this country was governed by an out-of-control President, as in, drunk on the eve of the invasion of Cambodia and taking other irrational actions–ordering up worldwide nuclear alerts, or instructing aides to firebomb the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, where he thought some secret papers had been stashed (they hadn’t been), or using the instruments of government against his perceived enemies. (In the case of Brookings, his aides, who constantly had to decide whether their boss’s orders were mad or even intended, thought the wiser of it.) The play makes a dramatic turning point of a Frost researcher’s discovery of a taped conversation between Nixon and his chief henchman, Charles Colson, which suggests that Nixon was in on the cover-up early. But the reason the tape was unknown was that the Watergate prosecutors, awash in far more incriminating evidence, didn’t consider it worth using.
The final difficulty with the play is that although it contains various details that are harmless elaborations on facts, or simply imagined, the plot’s very premise–that the shallow showman Frost goes up against the disgraced but canny Nixon and “nails” him on Watergate–is a contrivance. The real interview did elicit some important and memorable statements, and a bit of groveling by Nixon, but, though it made for compelling television, it was no “knockout.”
Ample evidence exists that Nixon said precisely what he wanted to in order to help Frost sell the interviews. In actuality, during a break in taping (also misrepresented in the play), a Nixon aide, after conferring with Nixon, told Frost’s aides, “He knows he has to go further…. He’s got more to volunteer.” This line is not in the play. The play imagines Nixon in the dressing room saying, “I’m tired…. He’s good today” and commenting that he does not want to “carry on denying it all.” But there’s little evidence from what followed in the interview that Nixon had opted for full candor. According to other accounts of these interviews, when the taping of the Watergate session was over, Nixon remarked to Frost, half-smiling, “Well, that should make you happy.” (This is not in the play.) Morgan himself told John Lahr of The New Yorker, “I could just as easily have written the piece–and found substance to support it–to substantiate the idea that Frost didn’t get Nixon, that Nixon half threw it, in order for these interviews to sell.”
As in the real interviews, Nixon dominates most of the segments through rambling reminiscences, to Frost’s and his advisers’ despair. Then, during the Watergate segment, the last, the well-prepared Frost presses Nixon hard, and Nixon says some gripping lines–during which the play shows Langella’s ravaged, swollen face contorted with anger and agony on the television screens clustered in the back of the set. On the recording of the actual interview, Nixon looks uncomfortable, his eyes glowering at times, but far less rattled than as portrayed in the play. Other problems are caused by the playwright’s fiddling with what Nixon said in the interview. The most egregious emendation in the script has Nixon confessing that he “…was involved in a ‘cover-up’ as you call it.” The ellipsis, which is unknown to the audience, is crucial: What Nixon actually said was, “You’re wanting me to say that I participated in a legal cover-up. No!”
In the interviews (and as accurately depicted in the play), Nixon gives a semi-confession that “a reasonable person could call that a cover-up,” but Nixon quickly recoups and says, “I didn’t intend it to cover up,” and he insists that he had no corrupt motive. Nixon famously says that his mistakes were “mistakes of the heart rather than the head.” Although he admits that he had abused power, most of those abuses for which he was about to be impeached and convicted when he resigned go unmentioned. Both Nixon and Frost were ultimately successful in achieving their mutual goals: the interviews attracted a huge worldwide audience, and Frost’s career and Nixon’s rehabilitation effort were enhanced considerably.
Morgan specializes in dramas that pit two figures against each other and explore the psychology and tensions of the relationship, usually with the good guy prevailing. Among his earlier successes were The Last King of Scotland, about Idi Amin and a naïve, idealistic Scottish doctor, and The Queen, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair (also played by Sheen) tries to persuade an out-of-touch monarch to show empathy toward her subjects’ grief at the tragic death of Princess Diana. In this movie, Queen Elizabeth’s conversion occurs in an improbable scene and overworked metaphor in which she sees a beautiful stag about to be killed by hunters, bringing tears to her eyes. But whether or not this literally happened doesn’t matter. The movie doesn’t distort history in large ways, and the figures Blair and Elizabeth are true to themselves.
Frost/Nixon is different. It goes over the line in placing commercial appeal over historical truth. Innumerable plays, as well as movies, elaborate on what is known (Shakespeare was the genius at this), and when dramatists and screenwriters base their work on historical events or figures, they are granted large license. But we do expect the dramas about them to be essentially true to history. Frost/Nixon is not. It matters a lot because this popular drama is about a relatively recent figure whose historical role is still the subject of vigorous debate, in which Nixon defenders argue that his fate was undeserved. In that sense, the play is propaganda, perhaps inadvertent but effective and powerful nonetheless.