Friday, April 27, 2007
Nixon should have learned the first time. Many people feel he lost the 1960 presidential election in part because of the contrast between his pasty, sweaty appearance and that of the youthful, confident John Kennedy in their televised debate. But when David Frost lured him into a series of interviews in 1977, Nixon’s hubris got the best of him. With a handkerchief and makeup artist at hand, he expected to sail through his conversations with the lightweight talk show host.
Wrong again, Mr. Nixon. The story of this encounter and what led up to it is the subject of “Frost/Nixon,” the engaging new play by Peter Morgan, brilliantly acted by Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michael Sheen (Frost).
It’s easy to see why Nixon expects a cakewalk. No one has any faith that the playboy interviewer can play hardball with the former president of the United States. “I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees,” one of his advisors says when Frost announces his intention to go after a Nixon interview.
After outbidding serious journalists like Mike Wallace by agreeing to Nixon’s $600,000 demand, Frost puts up $200,000 of his own money to get the process rolling. Still, the networks aren’t interested, nor are advertisers. Frost expects biggies like IBM and General Motors but ends up with Weed Eaters.
When the time actually comes for the series of taped interviews, Nixon skillfully evades Frost’s questions, “flicked away like no more than a fly,” one of his advisors says. “It was like watching a dead man come back to life.”
The stress builds as Frost tries to make the best of it. The play is so artfully written that even though we know the outcome, we feel the pressure heating up. Frost becomes the victor, though, in the final session, getting Nixon to admit he participated in the Watergate burglary coverup and that he had let down the America people. And the four 90-minute shows that result from the nearly 29 hours of taping end up capturing the largest audience for a television news show in history.
Director Michael Grandage makes great use of the cat and mouse game between the two men, giving us what seems like split screen glimpses into each side’s comments before and after the tapings. He also has mounted a couple dozen TV monitors as one large picture behind the men’s chairs so the audience can see the close-ups, just as we would if we were watching at home. This technique proves most powerful at the end after Nixon confesses and we see his pathetic, bewildered face.
It is then, after all the excitement of the chase and evasion, we understand that the conqueror should have been more apparent from the beginning. Although he had never voted and had no political interests, Frost was bound to be the victor. As one of his advisors says, “He understands television.”
A lyric from the “Springtime for Hitler” number in “The Producers” would have been appropriate for this show:
“It ain’t no mystery,
If it’s politics or history,
The thing you gotta know is,
Everything is show biz.”
“Frost/Nixon” is politics and history -- and show biz at its best.