Frost/Nixon: ‘An intellectual Rocky’

Peter Morgan's dramatisation of David Frost's interview with the disgraced US president gives a very human take on a little slice of history.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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In 1977, David Frost pulled off a remarkable coup for someone who had hitherto been regarded as a lightweight, playboy chatshow host. He landed the biggest political interview of them all. In the face of fierce competition from the US networks, Frost persuaded former US President Richard Nixon to discuss his life, presidency – and Watergate. The motivations of the two men, and the relationship between them, provide perfect material for Peter Morgan’s first stage play, Frost/Nixon.

Morgan has already dabbled in big-power relationships in his screen writing, most notably in The Deal, which told the story of Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader at the expense of Gordon Brown, and The Queen, which revisits the stand-off between the newly elected Blairites and the House of Windsor over Princess Diana’s death in 1997. In each of these dramas, Morgan merges the facts with a healthy dose of imagination and plays on a single central relationship to allow the story to unfold. This mix is repeated in Frost/Nixon.

In Morgan’s telling, Nixon has escaped responsibility, not just for Watergate, but for the war in south-east Asia too. Despite needing a presidential pardon to escape criminal proceedings after his scandalous resignation in 1974, Nixon still hankers after the buzz of Washington. He seems to hope that he can hold public office again, or at least be a player on the capital’s political scene. For the most part, though, he is reduced to playing golf in the sunny climes of California: the anti-Washington, DC.

At the same time, Frost, his days as a TV satirist behind him, has chatshows in three different continents and seems to be on first-name terms with every major star. Then his American show is dropped. Though still a success in Britain and Australia, the loss of his American outlet delivers a huge blow to his ego. ‘Success in America is unlike success anywhere else’, says Frost in the play. ‘And the emptiness, when it’s gone… and the sickening thought that it’s left you…that it’s gone somewhere else, to someone else and will never come back.’

He decides he needs a blockbuster interview to get back on the American track, and goes after Nixon. Nixon is advised to go with Frost – if for no other reason than the fact that Frost’s people, so desperate to make an impact in America, are willing to pay over the odds (they eventually pay Nixon something in the region of £5million in present-day prices).

Furthermore, Frost is regarded as a soft touch, an easy ride, an interviewer who will allow Nixon to rehabilitate himself. Which is exactly how things pan out – at first. Frost is aware that, on his own, he doesn’t have the political nous or resources to beat Nixon in an interview. So he brings in John Birt (later to become director general of the BBC) as his right-hand man, and employs a veteran Washington reporter and a fiery liberal academic to beef up his research and advise him on tactics. Yet still Nixon wipes the floor with Frost, even on the touchy topic of his carpet-bombing of Cambodia. It isn’t until they discuss Watergate that Frost finally nails Nixon.

In Morgan’s presentation, Nixon’s crumbling admission of criminal responsibility, and his sort-of apology to America, looks like an early example of therapy TV. Nixon isn’t just ‘caught out’ by Frost; he also wants to relieve himself of the burden of deceit. Underneath his cold exterior lies a man embittered by all those who looked down their noses at his humble upbringing. Nixon was constantly trying to prove himself and to be accepted by the Great and the Good. In this respect, Frost and Nixon are both antagonists and bedfellows.

Morgan never lets the play become a shallow rant against Nixon, which must have been tempting. He’s much more interested in the dynamic between the two men. He leaves the point-scoring to the two narrators, who become the rivals’ seconds: the liberal academic assisting Frost, Jim Reston, and Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan. In fact, allusions to boxing are never far away and Morgan himself has described the play as ‘an intellectual Rocky‘.

Yet Morgan can’t resist summing it all up for the audience. He ends the play with Frost back on top, holding yet another celebrity party. Reston is rather appalled by it all, noting that, in the end, there isn’t much difference between showbiz and politics. This seems not only unduly cynical – the 1970s replayed through the prism of a post-political era – but rather weak. A play that manages to convey, with humour, tension and pathos, an understanding and relatively complex view of two high-profile figures, undermines itself with this feeble coda. It’s as if Morgan felt he had to have some grand point to make after dealing with such interesting material, when it was in fact unnecessary.

That criticism aside, Frost/Nixon is well worth seeing. Michael Sheen is as good as ever, capturing very well Frost’s verbal and physical mannerisms. Frank Langella is excellent as Nixon, particularly in a drunken late-night call to Frost when he reveals rather more of himself than he would have liked to. The staging, backed by a bank of TV screens, cleverly brings into the theatre the on-screen effect of the interviews, making them both intimate and iconic at once.

Frost’s interviews with Nixon were watched by 400million people. Since then he went on to host the painfully bad celeb-fest Through the Keyhole and the weekend agenda-setter Frost on Sunday; more recently he moved to Al-Jazeera English. Nixon disappeared into obscurity, his dreams of rehabilitation in tatters. He died in 1994. The future looks much brighter for Peter Morgan. With his ability to blend real big events with imaginative dramatisation, he has produced another very human take on a little slice of history.

Frost/Nixon is at the Gielgud Theatre in London until 3 February 2007. It then transfers to Broadway.

Read Rob’s website here.

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