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Frost/Nixon: A Dishonorable Distortion of History

Posted: 12/14/08 10:56 PM ET

It's not surprising that the movie Frost/Nixon is receiving rave reviews. Like the eponymous smash play it's based on, it tells a dramatic story of a clash of two interesting figures (one of them absolutely riveting), with two richly talented actors, Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. The film is even more powerful than the play because of the effects of motion-picture techniques - size, penetrating close-ups, film clips, variegated scenery, and simply more action. But mainly size: everyone and everything is bigger - even eyeballs. Moreover, the movie is set against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic, frightening, and significant episodes in American history -- "Watergate" is inadequate shorthand for the constitutional crisis this country went through (often misinterpreted as simply a series of crimes on the part of the president and his top aides), ending in Nixon's being the first (and as yet only) president to be forced to leave office.

But it's because of the enormously historical importance of that period that the film raises serious questions of its legitimacy. The film's plot is a contrivance; its telling is so riddled with departures from what actually happened as to be fundamentally dishonest; and its climactic moment is purely and simply a lie. Literary license in the name of drama or entertainment is one thing; the issue comes down to what one is taking license with, and the degree of license being taken.

The play/film is at least based on something that actually happened: three years after Nixon left office in 1974, the British talk-show host/entertainer Frost, his career on the skids, wangles the first set of television interviews with the disgraced former president, brooding and plotting in San Clemente, California over how to restore his own reputation and, by the by, to pay his substantial legal bills. (Typically, Nixon's effort to redeem himself in the public eye was a plotted project with a title, "The Wizard" -- a telling fact that the script omits.) The highly successful screenwriter Peter Morgan, using his familiar trope, turns the interviews into a mythic battle, David-and-Goliath style (note the order of the names in the title), pitting a callow Frost against the master conniver and debater Nixon, and, after hours and hours of frustrating questioning, "nails" him. Thus, Nixon is at last brought to justice, forced to admit his knavery to the American people, and truth wins out. The problem is, this isn't what happened.

First of all, the whole arrangement between Frost and Nixon was dubious from the outset. While the script is straightforward about the fact that under their agreement Nixon was to be paid for the interviews (a then-whopping $600,000), a highly unusual arrangement, it omits the even more questionable part of the deal in which Nixon was guaranteed twenty percent of the profits from the sales of the interviews to television stations. Thus, the two purported gladiators were in business together, with a mutual interest in making the interviews interesting enough to make a nice profit. The deal also guaranteed that only one-fourth of the time would be devoted to Watergate, leaving Nixon the rest to ramble on about his foreign policy achievements - which in his mind included the invasion of Cambodia. To further disguise the degree to which the interview project was essentially a fix, the script of both the play and the movie simply leaves out the episode in which, after Nixon returned to his dressing room during a sudden break in the taping of the Watergate segment - the break misrepresented in the script as having been called for by Nixon aides worried their boss was becoming uncomfortable, whereas it was actually called for by Frost because he misread a cue card held up by the Nixon aides saying "Let him talk" - Nixon aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) told Frost's frustrated aides, "He knows he has to go further. He's got more to volunteer." These lines appear in neither the play nor the movie.

Second, Frost did not in fact "nail" Nixon. The climactic moment of the movie (as in the play) has Nixon confessing to having participated in the cover-up of the famous break-in of the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, in June, 1972 by operatives hired by White House aides. But this "confession" is produced through a blatant distortion of what Nixon actually said in the interviews. At that particular moment, Frost was pressing Nixon to admit that he had more than made "mistakes," that there had in fact been wrongdoing, that crime might have been involved (a rather mild way of putting it). Then, through a sleight of hand, the script simply changes what Nixon actually said: the script of the play has Nixon admitting that he "...was involved in a 'cover-up,' as you call it." The ellipsis is of course unknown to the audience, and is crucial: What Nixon actually said was, "You're wanting to me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!"

As he gives the faux confession in the movie, Langella's remarkably Nixon-like face (shown on a television screen in the play) is ravaged, distorted in agony, contorted in anger. On the disk of the actual interview, Nixon glowers and looks perturbed, but the scene lacks the drama of both the film and the play. Nixon, as promised, did give Frost some interesting material "I let down my country;" "I gave them a sword;" his mistakes "were mistakes of the heart rather than of the head," all very unusual things for an ex-President to say, but far short of an admission of attempts, carried out during Nixon's presidency, to undermine the inner workings of the opposition party, of his broad-scale and alarming assaults on the constitution. The Watergate break-in was small beans compared to, say, the break-in of the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers - Nixon was far more worried about the discovery of this break-in. In the movie, even the semi-admissions come across as dramatic; on the disks of the actual interviews, they seem bathetic.

There are other distortions in the movie. One of them makes a very big thing of the "discovery" by James Reston, Frost's chief researcher, of a taped conversation between Nixon and his political henchman Charles Colson, supposedly the first one about the cover-up. (Reston, is depicted as the moral conscience of the story, the one who is determined to hold Nixon to account, but he is made less of a noodge in the movie than in the play, where he became an irritating presence.) Much is made of the fact that this bit of conversation was theretofore unknown. But after I saw the play I checked with one of the Watergate prosecutors, who told me that that particular piece of tape was unknown because "we were awash in far more incriminating evidence" against Nixon, and the prosecutors didn't consider it worth using. (The play was based on an unpublished manuscript that Reston wrote about his role in the interviews; the book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon, was published after the play was a hit.)

Finally, though the main characters are acted well as they were written to be, they were not written to be what they were actually like. Langella, wreaks the magic of not just imitating Nixon but becoming him before our eyes, but this is not the true Nixon. The one we meet in the movie is too mellow, too jokey. There are only flashes of the bitterness that consumed and ultimately destroyed him. The main display of that bitterness comes in an invented scene in which Nixon phones Frost in his hotel room, and pours out his bitterness. No excessive liberty was taken in the invention of the scene as a device to display this critical aspect of Nixon's persona, but it goes further than that by also distorting the plot. In the imagined conversation, Nixon heightens the supposed collision between them ("I shall come at you with everything I got") and that only one of them can win. (But that wasn't the deal.) And this supposed conversation supposedly inspires Frost to try harder, which supposedly leads to Frost nailing Nixon, which never happened. Langella deftly shows that Nixon was a strange man, awkward with small talk, uneasy with people, but Langella's Nixon becomes an almost sympathetic figure, and also a jokey one, the one we most want to see, in order to have more laughs. But Nixon wasn't funny. And he certainly wasn't the likeable figure of Frost/Nixon. (Yes, of course, some people liked him, but not very many, and not even his dog.) He was a tragic Shakespearean figure, often out of control (and drunk), and, it seemed, more than a little mad (his aides never knew which orders were even intended, not least should be carried out), brought down by his flaws: he would have made for excellent drama, if not as much entertainment. Because Langella's figure is outsized, Sheen's remarkable talent is outshone. But Frost himself wasn't and isn't the dolt portrayed in the play/movie. Sheen has Frost's intonation down cold, and Frost certainly liked his booze and his women and his parties (he's settled down now, married to the daughter of a major Duke, and has three sons, on whom he dotes), but he's more intelligent and more serious-minded than the way he's portrayed.

Peter Morgan specializes in stories that pit two figures against each other -- David and Goliath-like -- with the good guy prevailing. The Queen, in which Sheen played Tony Blair convincing a frosty Queen Elizabeth to show her grieving subjects more empathy over the death of Princess Diana; The Last King of Scotland, in which a young Scottish doctor realizes the brutality of Idi Amin, and leaves him, the monstrous Amin desolated. So, in this story, Frost must win out over Nixon, even if it never happened. The interviews ended in a draw. Morgan himself told John Lahr of the New Yorker after the play came out, "I could just as easily written the piece -- and found substance to support it -- to substantiate it, that Frost didn't get Nixon, that Nixon threw it in, for these interviews to sell."

It doesn't matter whether the Queen actually cried and thought of Diana when she saw a beautiful stag about to be killed by hunters. We don't really know how mature, or even sane, Hamlet was. To try to ascertain to what degree the liberties taken in Frost/Nixon are in accord with dramatic tradition, and acceptable, I recently raised the subject of dramatic license with Michael Kahn, the esteemed Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theater, in Washington. Kahn told me that "while Shakespeare took a lot of liberties to produce great drama, he based most of his stuff on historical sources; he didn't distort [ital] history." Kahn added, "There were court documents to work from, there were a lot of letters from Queen Elizabeth I; as far as I know what he never did was take any documentary dialog and change it into something else." (Kahn expressed shock when I told him about the distorted key line in Frost/Nixon.) There's also the matter of timing. Nixon remains a relatively recent figure, around whom there still swirls a lot of controversy. Shakespeare, Kahn said, never wrote about contemporary politics. If he wanted to write about Jacobean times he put it in the period of Pericles and Athens; the most recent figure he wrote about was Henry VIII, "and by the time he wrote it those figures were long dead."

It doesn't matter that Frost/Nixon moves some scenes around (though it's not always clear why), and engages in some invention. But such a gross misrepresentation of such important events -- roughly seventy percent of the population is too young to have been aware of Watergate -- about a figure over whom there is still serious debate, in the name of entertainment and profits, to my mind, crosses the line of dramatic integrity and is dishonorable.