In 1983, Paul Berman called Richard Nixon "the richest, most promising character the American theater has ever seen." Recalling the scores of Nixons that had, even then, already appeared on stage and screen, Berman noted, "His personality descends to almost oceanic depth, plunging from bright intelligence through piety, vulgarity, maudlinity and paranoia to the murky floor of violent criminality. His quivering cheeks and humped back are an actor's dream."
Some years later, Daniel Aaron offered a different view. "Writers for the most part have used him as a whipping boy rather than as an object for contemplation," he observed. Their "clever exercises in political denigration haven't weathered well because the topical allusions once so devastatingly apt are largely lost on today's readers, and because they weren't all that funny to begin with."
Both men are partly right. Aaron unfairly dismisses some gems, such as Philip Roth's brilliant Our Gangand Dan Aykroyd's enduring Saturday Night Live performances. He neglects others, such as Philip Baker Hall's delicious Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor, and he wrote too early to account for still others, such as Nixon's Nixon (a 1996 play, recently revived) and Dick (a 1999 movie). But he's right (as I've suggested before in Slate) that plays and films about Nixon have largely failed to capture the Shakespearean traits that Berman enumerates. Now, the latest Nixon effort, Frost/Nixon, has come to Broadway from London with much fanfare. Does it capture the dramatically complex Nixon that both Berman and Aaron relished?
Written by Peter Morgan—a Briton best known as the screenwriter of The Queen—Frost/Nixon tells the story of how, in 1977, British talk-show host David Frost, considered a lightweight (and a washed-up one at that), nabbed the first interviews with Nixon after his resignation and how the two men, both seeking rehabilitation, jousted before and during their series of televised parleys. Frost wanted to gain respectability by exacting an apology and admission of guilt from the unrepentant president. Nixon, convinced the news media had railroaded him, craved a prime-time forum to tell his version of events—a version that would downplay Watergate and stress his foreign policy.
The premise, therefore, is great—at least for hard-core Nixonologists. Yet Frost/Nixon begins inauspiciously. Unlike, for example, Nixon's Nixon, in which director Jim Simpson permitted "no latex noses," Frost/Nixon puts Frank Langella through the paces of a full-on impersonation—replete with gravelly voice, jowls, and even an exaggerated hunch. The choice suggests we're in for broad comedy, not psychological drama. Moreover, the play's early scenes include re-creations of several stock Nixon highlights, including his self-pitying resignation speech, which are by now so well-trodden as to border on cliché.
Yet Frost/Nixon quickly leaves the realm of the familiar as it shifts to the characters of Frost and James Reston Jr.—the latter a journalist, son of the great New York Times columnist, and research assistant to Frost on the Nixon interviews. Frost, played by Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen), is the best kind of fictional hero—a highly unappealing one. Frost's vanity, superficiality, and bad 1970s tummy-hugging shirts are on full display. He preens, bluffs his way into his meeting with Nixon, and sidles up to a leggy passenger on his flight to Los Angeles. But he develops during the play, discovering that he actually has deeper motives for wanting to spar with Nixon than mere careerism.
Reston, for his part, is played by Stephen Kunken with the earnestness and goofiness befitting a 1970s baby boomer eyeing a chance to nail the recently pardoned Nixon. An unreconstructed Nixon-hater, Reston's politics are a generation gap away from his father's sober centrism. Recruited to the Frost research team by Bob Zelnick (who would go on to write an attack biography on Al Gore), Reston groans and winces for much of the play as Frost balks at confronting Nixon as forcefully as Reston thinks he should.