Reviewed by David Spencer
I remember things, TV things. I remember sitting in front of the tube when ABC weatherman Tex Antoine, following the story of a five year old girl's brutal rape, committed career suicide by quipping, "With rape so predominant in the news lately, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: 'If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.'" He apologized the next night (he claimed he'd only heard the end of the story and hadn't realized the victim was a child, lame mitigation to be sure, though I imagine it was true), but what had been a brilliant career was clearly already over, and he was gone a few weeks later.
I also remember the debates during the Presidential primaries in 1968. Frank Reynolds would recap the day's events and then moderate a showdown between arch-conservative William F. Buckley and dyed-in-the-wool liberal Gore Vidal. Vidal was railing against the Vietnam war, Buckley made some remark about the behavior of crypto-Nazis shooting American military, Vidal said, "The only crypto-Nazi I know of is yourself—" and Buckley interrupted, "Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, you liberal queer, or I'll punch you right in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."
But these went out live. It was rare you caught that level of exposure on tape. But in 1977, David Frost did, with his three-part interview of Richard M. Nixon. He made his way past formidable defenses, and got the ex-President to say something he never planned to say, and in fact had planned against.
And it is the events surrounding this encounter that playwright Peter Morgan has chosen to dramatize in Frost/Nixon, from London's Donmar Warehouse with its original stars, at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 45th. Michael Sheen is Frost, Frank Langella is Nixon; and Morgan, who clearly made a specialty of contemporary historical figures, two more on film within the past year alone (Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen, Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) has hit the trifecta with this play. It's ironic that after so much screen and film writing, Morgan chooses to dramatize the furor around a TV show via a stage play—but perhaps not: the power of videotape, where interviews are concerned, has always been the illusion of being live, and David Frost was a master at firing up the phosphor dots—even as Richard Nixon was the opposite: a dour, uncomfortable personality who eventually learned how to use the media to his advantage, but was never at home in its spotlight.
A quick dash of background research for this review reveals that Mr. Morgan was not shy about applying dramatic license—but then, very few historical dramas are—but despite that (perhaps even because of it) Frost/Nixon nonetheless nails the political, media and cultural fever of that era. It also captures (without articulating it too obviously) a face off between interestingly matched forces.
Frost had been highly popular in the UK and London, but ratings were slipping; plus his New York show had syndicated badly and he'd lost his US presence. He wasn't exactly on the way down, but he was hovering at a point where things could have gone either way.
Nixon had become practiced in presenting a guiltless, professional public persona in the wake of his resignation. He wasn't exactly on the way back up, but he was hovering: to the fury of liberals everywhere, he had held on to a certain amount of his street cred by dint of simply never owning accountability for Watergate, for the disaster that Vietnam had become.
Both wounded Titans and, according to Morgan's play, each at first underestimating the formidable power of the other.
In making this the heart of the piece, Morgan (with the expert collusion of director Michael Grandage) pulls off what I call "the 1776 trick." Just as that musical has the power to make you "forget" that you know the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed by the Continental Congress, Frost/Nixon makes you forget the somewhat less famous but generally known fact that Frost managed to coax Nixon to make an actual, out-and-out apology to the American public for his wrongdoing.
The play moves with television speed, owing to fluid set design that indicates rather than illustrates locale (Christopher Oram), and a narration trade off between two likewise diametrically opposed perspectives: that of journalist Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken) who was hired to spearhead the Frost research and strategy tream; and Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson), the military man who was Nixon's devoted aide and advisor. It takes a while for this device to settle in; the one weakness of the play is that the text doesn't help these two actors make clear why they feel compelled to tell this story; so until you find yourself persuaded by their simple passion, the narration can "feel" like an author's shortcut. Which of course it is, but we shouldn't be aware of it.
But that objection is barely a blip on the radar next to the core event and the thoroughly mesmerizing actors selling it.
As Nixon, Frank Langella is not as wedded to imitation has others who have played the fallen CIC. To be sure, he has adopted certain physical and vocal mannerisms, because one must to earn the suspension of disbelief. But ultimately that's but a shell containing gestures of his own energy, a voice of his own devising—his way to get at what gets effectively conveyed as Nixon's essence. And because art can editorialize, it's a more exposed essence, a clearer pathology, than Nixon actually revealed on camera.
By contrast, Michael Sheen is absolutely assiduous about recreating the Frost that those of us Yanks old enough to remember saw on television: the dry comic timing, the fanboy enthusiasm, thephysical exuberance—and the voice, both the timbre and the cadence of the voice, in which each stress syllable gets just that little bit more energy. But this is no mere imitation either. For Sheen has also created the churning inner life that makes the exterior possible. At least a version of the inner life that serves the play, and that's what's needed.
To say more would be to deliver spoilers—leave it at this: just because you know how it turns out doesn't mean you know how it turns out.
And you'll remember it...as vividly as if it were the real thing...