By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
That point is made clear in Frost/Nixon’s production design, in which above the oak-paneled interview room hangs a massive video monitor. When we finally get beyond the teams and the stakes, the culminating scenes from the interviews are broadcast live onto that screen, so that split focus between the live action and the televised action starts to blur into what could be called a mythic reality. The impression is so strong, it doesn’t matter that Keach bears such scant physical resemblance to Nixon. Those of us who remember those days start imposing Nixon onto Keach’s frame.
The beauty of Frost/Nixon is the challenge it brings to the image of Nixon that the Washington press corps had made famous, and infamous. Though Nixon thawed relations with the Soviet Union and opened up the previously impenetrable Chinese government to trade discussions, the memories enshrined in the mythology of U.S. history by the force of TV is the Watergate break-in and the president clutching to “executive privilege” as a padlock on the strongbox of his subsequent cover-up.
I have the “advantage” of not having seen Howard’s film, though I did see its stars, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, perform the play on Broadway, with the same director (Michael Grandage) and the same design team. It all lent to the impression of having seen this show before but with the surreal and pivotal distinction that the actors in the two versions had been swapped out. Langella’s comparatively snippy, snarky Nixon possessed the complexity of a tragic Greek warrior, not unlike the portrayal by Philip Baker Hall in Donald Freed’s play and screenplay, Secret Honor — the latter directed by Robert Altman.
If the Broadway incarnation of Frost/Nixon was like a Greek tragedy, in Los Angeles, Keach turns it into more of a romantic tragedy. When he roars, as he does on occasion, the daunting effect neither lingers nor permeates the character. Keach’s Nixon is a comparatively amiable and witty fellow, so smart and human that you wonder how he could have been so misunderstood. This version emerges more as the story of a bear set upon by a pack of vindictive wolves, so that you end up siding with the bear — at least I did. Less so those around me. When Nixon spoke, they hissed, as I imagine they would have hissed in 1974. When Nixon offered a line of Gandhi-esque wisdom, “Those who hate you never win, unless you hate them back,” many in the audience snickered.
Cox, much like Sheen, is a dead ringer for young Frost, with an almost ingratiating civility, tempered by rare moments of assertiveness, which recall Tony Blair. There’s fine support from narrator Brian Sgambati, playing the perennially indignant Jim Reston, who serves up the final, lethal evidence of Nixon’s malfeasance for Frost’s research team. Ted Koch is also grand as Nixon’s chief of staff, Jack Brennan, a military man defending the reputation and dignity of the former commander in chief. Some of the female performances are dreadfully mannered, but those scenes are mercifully brief.
The production deserves to be judged on its own terms, and those terms are strong. They leave the haunting impression that history, like a play, isn’t so much written as rewritten, and that the elusive truth lingers somewhere between the lines, the lies, the embellishments and omissions.