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When former President Richard Nixon agreed to a series of interviews with talk-show host David Frost in 1977, they were both at the nadir of their careers; Frost had lost his New York show, while Nixon...well, it was 1977, three years after his, um, resignation. As Nixon suggests to Frost in a dramatically-speculated (or, fabricated) drunken, late-night phone call near the end of Frost/Nixon, they're both doing the shows as a means of "looking for a way back." Frost reminds him, "only one of us can win," to which The Mad Monk antagonistically responds, "And I shall be your fiercest adversary." Their series of interviews, which began as benign, in the end became a real fight to the finish, bull against toreador; were Nixon to lose, he would be finished. With fifty million people watching, there would be no second chance for historical redemption in the forum of public opinion.
Or at least that's how Peter Morgan tells it in Frost/Nixon, his theatrical debut. Like his screenplay for The Queen (and his teleplay for The Deal), Frost/Nixon reasonably imagines the behind-the-scenes goings-on that led up to Nixon's famous, if caveated, apology to the nation, elicited by the unlikely Frost. (He was also aided by the as of this writing unpublished memoir by witness James Reston, Jr.) As even Hunter S. Thompson would admit, in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Richard Nixon was a fun guy, a great football buddy, and Frank Langella plays Nixon appropriately, with mimetic bluster, as a chummy, jokey, and all together affable fellow from the moment he enters the stage. The same goes for Michael Sheen's Frost, whom he plays as a magnetic and seductive man of smiles. Both men seem like they'd be prize guests at a dinner party. The similarities begin to depart, however, as you dig a bit deeper; Nixon, historical monster as he may be, had the capacity to feel emotion—he has a soul, however atramentous—while Frost comes across as something of a vacuous superficies. His sole virtue, if you could call it that, is that he understood the similarly bird-brained medium of television.
But so did Nixon, apparently having learned his lesson seventeen years earlier after his notoriously disastrous debates with Kennedy. He performs a masterful manipulation job, steering the interviews in his favor to the consternation of Frost's people, who spend their evenings during the tapings poring over the video, critiquing everything from Frost's interviewing technique to his body language. Nixon's also got a knack for taking the upperhand, as when he catches Frost off-guard right before a taping by casually inquiring as to whether or not he did any fornicating the night before. Despite his perspiration problem, and his want of good looks, Nixon is a keen performer, particularly by way of Langella, able to fashion a reasonable and forgivable persona persuasive enough to, possibly, enable him to reclaim his position in history as something other than an emblem of corruption. But only if he can first get by Frost, who's as committed to reclaiming his spot in the sphere of American celebrity as Nixon is to clearing his name. "Success in America is unlike success anywhere else," he tells his agent; above all he wants back his table at Sardi's, a restaurant he speaks of almost mythically.
As he confides in the aforementioned drunken telephone call, Nixon believes that he's found something of a kindred spirit in Frost, despite their enmity, describing the both of them as working-class lads who've spent their whole lives trying to earn the respect and validation from the elites and snobs who looked down on them as schoolboys. (Although earlier Nixon is quick to deride Frost's effeminacy when he spots him wearing a pair of laceless Italian shoes.) In Morgan's version, one of Frost's driving motivations for doing the interviews as something more than a mere puff-piece is to prove to the dismissive, disparaging Mike Wallace (and presumably the rest of his colleagues) that he can be an honest-to-goodness journalist, and not just, as he's called in the play (along with Vidal Sassoon), the emblem of the times, possessing "great fame without any discernable quality."
In his quest for respectability, Frost is also goaded on by his researcher, James Reston (Stephen Kunken), an avowed anti-Nixonite—and yet even he is enamored by Nixon the man when he finally meets him and encounters his assuring and congenial formality—who's working on the show in the hopes of giving Nixon the trial he never got, thanks to Gerry Ford's kindly but controversial, to put it nicely, pardon. The bulk of Frost/Nixon is in the build-up to the actual interviews, as deals are struck, money is spent, advertisers are sought and research is performed. It's more absorbing than it might sound. "Why would I want to talk to David Frost?" Nixon asks, incredulously, early on, disparaging Frost's skills as an interviewer until his agent (Stephen Rowe) assures him that he'll get a big chunk of cash out of it—more than CBS and Mike Wallace'll spend—and it'll be an easy opportunity for him to tell his side of the story, to get a crack at revising history. He promises the interview'll be a "big wet kiss". Meanwhile, however, Frost—known primarily as a playboy and an avatar of the apolitical—is working diligently with a team of researchers to dig up as much dirt as possible with which to nail Nixon. "Frost's not in your intellectual class," Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson) assures him; that's probably true, but Frost has a passionate retinue of analysts and advisors behind him who, despite their naive idealism, at least possess commitment. "This is war," one of Frost's people declares anticipatorily and a bit histrionically. What proves Nixon's undoing, however, is his attempts to find a careful balance between showbiz and politics while Frost, on the other hand, understands there's no difference between them on the great, diminishing simplifier known as TV. That's why he wins.
The play is narrated alternately by Reston and Brennan, offering privileged insights into each camp as well as general lessons in history and context; again, it's more interesting than it might sound, but the whole thing does play out a little awkwardly. This is Morgan's first foray into Broadway, and the script betrays his origins in other media; it's structured as a long string of often short scenes, tied-together by the excessive narration and, thanks to director Michael Grandage, coupled with flashy footage played on thrity-six TV screens that hang above the stage. The screens are hard to look away from during the abbreviatedly recreated interviews when they perform their other function, broadcasting the stage action like a stadium jumbotron, hinting that though Frost/Nixon is on a stage, it doesn't want to be a play. (Although the screens were helpful inasmuch as I'd forgotten my glasses.) A movie deal has already been struck, and filming commences once the play closes; I'd be excited, that it might be a better fit to the material, but with the great, diminishing simplifier known as Ron Howard slated to direct I'm afraid that Frost/Nixon will never get the fair shake it deserves.
Because it is often as effectively suspenseful, intriguing and fascinating as The Queen, an impressively and surprisingly brilliant script, thanks to Morgan's dramatic acumen and occasional historical liberties. Also in no small part thanks to Langella, who has the physicality of Nixon down pat (haha!), with hunched posture, speaking with one hand in a gravelly voice at once quavering and formidable. He gives Nixon a boisterously good-natured ebullience in public and a manic fury in private, though ultimately he reveals the sad and beaten old man beneath the layers of the alternatingly bitter and amiable veneer. "To go on, denying it all...I'm tired," Nixon sighs blearily near the end, drained of all his bellicose vigor. It's Langella's show, and thankfully he'll be back for the filmic record, but he wouldn't be as good without the help of straight-man Sheen, also returning for the film, a performance as underappreciated as his turn as Tony Blair, passed-over for a Tony nomination as he was for an Oscar. Sheen gives Frost complexity, always forcing you to question his true motivations as he squanders his savings to get the show on the air, unsure as to whether or not he's actually developed a political conscience, particularly as Frost seems to be willfully abdicating the advantage to Nixon during the early interview sessions. Sheen's Frost has the semblance of depth and complexity, when in reality he is just a shameless self-promoter, even agreeing to share a percentage of the ad revenue with Nixon, a move that's controversial for its considerable unethicality.
But beyond a mere historical drama about two wash-ups' last grasp, moving as it is, Frost/Nixon has more pressing issues inspiring it; Morgan, in writing a play about a show trial for Nixon in the national courthouse of television, obviously has parallels to contemporary politics in mind. Is Mr. Bush just as bad as Nixon, Frost/Nixon inspires the viewer to ask, or a lot worse? Either way, watching Mr. Bush get ripped apart on the stage, vicariously via Nixon, to the point where he can no longer maintain the facade of innocence is a moving and cathartic experience. While George W. Bush could probably never begin to atone for the destruction he's done to his country and the world, it would, after all, have to begin with a simple, "I'm sorry."
Directed by Michael Grandage; Written by Peter Morgan; Sets & Costumes by Christopher Oram; Video Design by Jon Driscoll; Starring Michael Sheen & Frank Langella