The Magazine

Give Them a Sword

Sir David meets King Richard in the Interview of the Century.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By ROBERT ZELNICK
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With Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan confirms his place as the multi-media master of a strange but engaging genre of fiction. The writer behind such award-season heavyweights as The Queen and The Last King of Scotland--both of which garnered dual Oscar and Golden Globe wins for their respective leading actors--Morgan now tries his hand at a piece of Americana: the Richard Nixon-David Frost interviews of 1977. The play, which opened on Broadway late last month, is a compelling bit of theater. As a work of historical fiction, however, it shows too little allegiance to the facts that inspired it.

Morgan approaches the sessions as a kind of boxing match between two unequal opponents. In one corner, the disgraced though heavily favored former president, buttressed by his chief of staff Col. Jack Brennan and his agent "Swifty" Lazar. In the other corner, British talk-show host David Frost, depicted here as something of a dandy, and his team of researchers. Morgan uses Frost researcher James Reston (Stephen Kunken) and Brennan (Corey Johnson) as narrators, setting the scenes and underlining with commentary the points he wishes to make.

Frost's character is played by Michael Sheen, who has twice done Tony Blair in highly praised interpretations of Morgan's work. Here the collaboration has Frost anguishing over his cancelled American and Australian weekly gigs, and the resulting snub by Sardi's--long a hangout of Broadway celebrities--depriving him of his favorite table. Morgan's Frost is a cheeky playboy, all style and no substance, whose interest in the interviews stems more from ego than intellect.

In contrast, Morgan's Nixon, brought to life by the fine actor Frank Langella, is a lumbering caricature of a man bent and constricted by the weight of personal tragedy. His shoulders sink toward the stage, his "victory" wave is stiff and exaggerated. Under pressure from Frost, the face of Langella's Nixon freezes in an eerie smile, then dissolves into soft clay while a film of saliva glistens on his lower lip. His tortured mien--captured on a wall of TV screens--is a study in humiliation.

So thoroughly does Langella capture the internal life of Richard Nixon that I found myself recalling one point in the original interviews when a damning series of Frost citations of White House transcripts made Nixon's eyelids flutter like the wings of a moth shot through with electric current. Langella does not mimic this Nixon; the physical resemblance between the two is not striking. Instead, Langella finds the essence of the Nixon character and pours it into a physical form which one accepts as Richard Nixon. Even with the final curtain barely down, I had some trouble distinguishing which of my most memorable images of Nixon were those from our sessions 30 years ago versus the creature created by Langella.

In both the real-life interviews and on stage, Frost struggled in his early bouts with Nixon, losing points to long-winded answers and maudlin recollections. But when it came time for Watergate, the underdog came out swinging, piling up points against a Richard Nixon who became more combative and less credible with each blow struck. Did he not join a conspiracy to obstruct justice by ordering aides to approach the CIA about pulling the FBI off the case? No, says Nixon, misstating the law--not if his motive was to keep other embarrassing activities from coming to light.

In the 1977 interviews, Frost pounded this theme for a few minutes and then moved on to other areas of presidential culpability, including the payment of money designed to buy the silence of the Watergate defendants. But in Peter Morgan's re-creation of the confrontation, Nixon offers an additional argument.

Nixon: When you're in office, you have to do a lot of things that are not, in the strictest sense of the law, legal. But you do them because they're in the greater interests of the nation.

Frost: . . . Are you really saying that there are certain situations where the president can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and do something illegal?

Nixon: I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it's not illegal.