There’s one scene in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, the touring production of which opened last week at the Ahmanson, where Richard Nixon (Stacy Keach) makes a late-night phone call in the spring of 1977 to the hotel room of David Frost (Alan Cox). Frost is in the midst of his somewhat impulsive and now historic high-stakes four-part televised interview of the disgraced ex-president, for which he’s not only flown from England to Nixon’s San Clemente home, but he’s also laid down hundreds of thousands of his own dollars to pay for the equipment, crew and hotel expenses, on the gambit that financing will eventually come in for the project. Nixon’s agent, Swifty Lazar (Stephen Rowe), has guaranteed that his client will get a sizable cut of the $600,000 fee, rendering the interview a pay-to-play scheme that engenders the derision of the Washington press corps.
Furthermore, Frost has the reputation of a lightweight, an entertainer who’s journalistic career has been built on subject-friendly chats with celebrity chefs and fashion models, while emotionally tempestuous and PR-seasoned Nixon is trying to salvage the image of a presidency that floats in the sewage of corruption and lies. Frost wants a confession and an apology; Nixon wants redemption. Both men are fighting for their legacy, and only one will triumph.
If you need a contemporary parallel for the drama and stakes of a TV interview, look no further than Jon Stewart’s highly ballyhooed recent interview with Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s Mad Money. What looks like “just talk” is really a trial, infused with humor-tinged, fury-saturated sarcasm, about the financial principles that were supposed to have guided us, and the betrayal of those principles by both Cramer and CNBC. (Stewart played clips of Cramer giving private advice on how to profit quickly from hedge funds with gambles bankrolled by our 401Ks.) Is Stewart, like Frost, just a class clown? If he’s a fool, he’s like one of Shakespeare’s fools, who speaks the truth between farts and funny faces. The satirist emerges as a journalist with far more research-based credibility than the ramblings of his rival, the co-opted “expert” from the more “authoritative” CNBC. What Frost and Stewart did was deeply satisfying but not revolutionary. With incontrovertible evidence, they stuck a mortal dagger into official truths that had already been largely debunked on the streets.
Frost/Nixon, not unlike Stewart’s televised interview with Cramer, is like the final act of Tartuffe, the one Molière never wrote — the act of contrition by the con man, the purging of communal wrath. All of these entertainments cut to the heart of how we obtain reliable truth. When do fiction, and invention, and humor and omission distort or reveal what’s actually going on? And how on earth are we supposed to figure that out?
Nixon’s late-night phone call is a stream-of-consciousness rant about the pair of them being locked out of their respective inner circles — Frost from the snobs at Cambridge, Nixon from the Washington elite. It’s a drunken stab at camaraderie, somewhat off base because Frost doesn’t feel shut out at all. Friends swirl around him like schools of fish. We see Frost alone, clutching the phone in silent amazement while, on the other side of the stage, Nixon blurts out the aria of a fallen king who feels graceless in crowds, who perspires under pressure, who doesn’t know how to tell or take a joke, who snarls and snaps at insults, whether they’re real or imagined.
“That’s the best scene in the movie,” an audience member remarked immediately after the speech, on opening night. It was a revelatory off-the-cuff remark, because it placed this live theater event in its bizarre context of occurring while Ron Howard’s movie of the same playwright’s screenplay-adaptation is still fresh in the minds of the public — particularly in our film-capital city.
The larger revelation, however unwitting, in the audience member’s crack derives from the reality that this “best scene” is a fiction, entirely invented in both the film and the play — a docudrama no less, first presented in 2006 by London’s Donmar Warehouse before transferring to Broadway the following year. If truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction, how is it that Morgan’s invented speculations are more compelling than the truths from which his play derives? Silly question really. It’s like asking Shakespeare why he interlaced the story of King John, or Richard III, with his own speculations, as though such speculations would interfere with the plays’ larger truths. Yet, try to make stuff up when you work for a newspaper. What journalist would keep a job after being caught adding embellishments to reveal some deeper truth?
Later in Frost/Nixon, Frost reminds Nixon of that late-night call, and Nixon simply can’t remember it, or says he can’t — a cagey device by Morgan to interweave the empirical with the poetical. Artists might refer to the device as “artistic license,” which raises the question of whether or not Nixon was invoking a similar license when, ordered by the Supreme Court to turn over to the Special Prosecutor taped conversations about his operatives’ break-in at the Watergate Hotel, Nixon’s relinquished tapes contained a “mysterious” gap of 18 and a half minutes. Whether you make stuff up or take stuff out, an exaggeration, a speculation or a deletion are all forms of fibbing, which is really the germinal stage of lying, which is the first cousin of storytelling. And everyone invested in legacy engages in the art of telling stories. The battle between Frost and Nixon, as between Stewart and Cramer, was a kind of literary scuffle over which story would prevail under the Klieg lights, and the under the watch of millions of viewers.
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.