Richard Nixon’s admission, in the legendary 1977 television interview with David Frost, that he “let the American people down,” may be the last time a U.S. president has looked into a TV camera and told the unvarnished truth. There are currently three different ways to experience this particularly poignant moment in American history: In the Ron Howard film Frost/Nixon now playing at not nearly enough cineplexes in town; in the DVD version of the original interviews (which has somehow distilled four hours of programming down to eighty-eight minutes); and in Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon , running through the weekend at the State Theatre and upon which Ron Howard’s film is based.
It must be strange for people who weren’t alive in the 1970s to hear about Richard Nixon and Watergate. By today’s standards of scandal and hypocrisy, the Watergate break-ins must sound like a botched minor-league burglary—a crime perpetrated by people who hadn’t yet figured out how to cover their tracks, in a faraway country where citizens were still foolish enough to believe that their elected leaders are honest people who should act with integrity, tell the truth, and abide by the laws of the land.
Stranger still is the idea that anyone would watch four hours of interviews with a disgraced ex-president on television. Who has the time? In fact, no one except Charlie Rose interviews people these days for more than ten minutes, unless Barbara Walters is doing a special, in which case she’ll go fifteen, or maybe twenty for Oprah. But four hours? Are you kidding?
Fortunately, the play only lasts two hours, and portrays the interviews between Frost and Nixon as a kind of intellectual boxing match, with each man retreating to his corner between takes for advice on strategy and tactics. Nixon (played by Stacy Keach) even has an assistant periodically wipe his sweaty brow, and likes to refer to Frost as a “worthy adversary”—one he initially underestimated. Still, it’s just a conversation, and listening to it is like watching a fight in which you already know the winner. Something is missing—namely the true drama of the moment—and that’s what the play tries gamely to recreate.
The protagonist in this drama isn’t Nixon, though, it’s David Frost (played by Alan Cox). Frost paid $600,000 for the right to interview Nixon, and basically staked his career on the outcome. Much is made of Frost’s frivolous nature, but Frost himself says the fiction-quotient in his character is ten to fifteen percent, which is about as close to the “truth” as one can expect from a fictionalized drama. After all, if the thing adhered to what actually happened, we’d be watching twenty-eight hours worth of rambling free association from a president who told lousy stories. That’s what dramatic license and editing are for—to save us from having to endure too much truth in one sitting.
As it happens, Nixon/Frost tells just enough of the truth to keep it entertaining. Stacy Keach mines Nixon’s character for more humor than one might expect, especially if the role you associate Keach with is tough-guy detective Mike Hammer. But let’s face it, half the fun of Frost/Nixon is in watching Keach summon the ghost of Richard Nixon from the eternal damnation of satire. When Saturday Night Live actors imitate a president, for instance, they focus on one aspect of the man’s character—his balance, stuttering, cluelessness, or whatever—and relentlessly repeat it. This treatment has reduced Richard Nixon to a cartoon, a jelly-joweled buffoon who smiles like an idiot and waves the peace “V” like a fourth of July sparkler. But Keach’s task is much tougher than a comedian’s, because he must revive the complexity and contradictions of Nixon’s character, the very nuances that three decades of jokes has stripped away.
Frank Langella played Nixon both on Broadway and in the movie, but his Nixon is a symphony of facial gestures—the darting eyes, the loose jaw, the shaking head. Keach doesn’t look at all like Nixon, but that’s okay onstage, because he's far enough away that you can’t see his face all that clearly. Instead, Keach captures Nixon through the rollercoaster cadence of Nixon’s stentorian speech and the floppy awkwardness of his hands. It takes a while for Keach’s Nixon to take hold, but as the play unfolds and the oddities of Nixon’s behavior pile up, an altogether different perspective on the man begins to emerge, one that doesn’t excuse Nixon’s actions but does garner a bit of sympathy for him.
Nixon’s basic position is that presidents must operate in a pressure-cooker of unique circumstances, and that they sometimes need to skirt the law in order to get things done. And if their heart is in the right place, as Nixon felt his was—if the president is doing it for the good of the country, that is—it’s okay, even necessary. Kids today will of course recognize this as the same end-justifies-the-means logic that has guided the current Bush administration. And when you remember that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are both demon spawn of the Nixon White House, the entire arc of history over the past forty years begins to make a bit more sense.
Frost/Nixon belongs in a much smaller venue (characters in the same room sometimes stand twenty feet apart just to fill the State’s huge stage), but it should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand where our country has been and where it is going. If we’re lucky, it might remind people that there was as time when we expected higher things from our chosen leaders, and offer some hope that our future leaders will rise to the challenges they face rather than lower themselves into the muck.
Only two questions remain: Who is going to nail the definitive interview with George W. Bush? And how long a YouTube video is it going to be?
Frost/Nixon runs through Jan. 11 at the State Theatre, hennepintheatredistrict.org