Frost, Nixon and Me

Author James Reston Jr. discovers firsthand what is gained and lost when history is turned into entertainment

David Frost (Michael Sheen) interviews Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in "Frost/Nixon." (Ralph Nelson / © 2008 Universal Studios)
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At my suggestion, Frost posed his questions with an assumption of guilt. When Nixon was taken by surprise—as he clearly was by the new material—you could almost see the wheels turning in his head and almost hear him asking himself what else his interrogator had up his sleeve. At the climactic moment, Frost, a natural performer, knew to change his role from inquisitor to confessor, to back off and allow Nixon's contrition to pour out.

In Aristotelian tragedy, the protagonist's suffering must have a larger meaning, and the result of it must be enlightenment. Nixon's performance fell short of that classical standard—he had been forced into his admission, and after he delivered it, he quickly reverted to blaming others for his transgressions. (His reversion to character was cut from the final broadcast.) With no lasting epiphany, Nixon would remain a sad, less-than-tragic, ambiguous figure.

For me, the transition from history to theater began with a letter from Peter Morgan, the acclaimed British screenwriter (The Queen), announcing his intention to write a play about the Frost-Nixon interviews. Since I loved the theater (and have written plays myself), I was happy to help in what seemed then a precious little enterprise.

At lunches in London and Washington, I spilled out my memories. And then I remembered that I had written a narrative of my involvement with Frost and Nixon, highlighting various tensions in the Frost camp and criticizing the interviewer for failing, until the end, to apply himself to his historic duty. Out of deference to Frost, I hadn't published it. My manuscript had lain forgotten in my files for 30 years. With scarcely a glance at it, I fished it out and sent it to Morgan.

In the succeeding months I answered his occasional inquiry without giving the matter much thought. I sent Morgan transcripts of the conversations between Nixon and Colson that I had uncovered for Frost. About a year after first hearing from Morgan, I learned that the play was finished and would première at the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London with Frank Langella in the role of Nixon. Morgan asked if I would be willing to come over for a couple of days to talk to Langella and the other actors. I said I'd love to.

On the flight to London I reread my 1977 manuscript and I read the play, which had been fashioned as a bout between fading heavyweights, each of whose careers were on the wane, each trying to use the other for resurrection. The concept was theatrically brilliant, I thought, as well as entirely accurate. A major strand was the rising frustration of a character called Jim Reston at the slackness of a globe-trotting gadfly called David Frost. Into this Reston character was poured all the anger of the American people over Watergate; it was he who would prod the Frost character to be unrelenting in seeking the conviction of Richard Nixon. The play was a slick piece of work, full of laughs and clever touches.

For the play's first reading we sat round a simple table at the Old Vic, ten actors (including three Americans), Morgan, me and the director, Michael Grandage. "Now we're going to go around the table, and everyone is going to tell me, 'What was Watergate?'" Grandage began. A look of terror crossed the actors' faces, and it fell to me to explain what Watergate was and why it mattered.

The play, in two acts, was full of marvelous moments. Nixon had been humanized just enough, a delicate balance. To my amusement, Jim Reston was played by a handsome 6-foot-2 triathlete and Shakespearean actor named Elliot Cowan. The play's climax—the breaking of Nixon—had been reduced to about seven minutes and used only a few sentences from my Colson material. When the reading was over, Morgan turned to Grandage. "We can't do this in two acts," he said. The emotional capital built up in Act I would be squandered when theatergoers repaired to the lobby for refreshments and cellphone calls at intermission. Grandage agreed.

I knew not to argue with the playwright in front of the actors. But when Morgan and I retreated to a restaurant for lunch, I insisted that the breaking of Nixon happened too quickly. There was no grinding down; his admission was not "earned." I pleaded for the inquisition to be protracted, lengthened, with more of the devastating Colson material put back in.

Morgan resisted. This was theater, not history. He was the dramatist; he knew what he was doing. He was focused on cutting, not adding, lines.


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