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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Back at the theater, after a second reading, Langella took up my argument on his own. Nixon's quick collapse did not feel "emotionally right" to him, he said. He needed more lines. He needed to suffer more. Grandage listened for a while, but the actor's job was not to question the text, but to make the playwright's words work. The play would stay as written.

It opened in London on August 10, 2006, to terrific reviews. The critics raved about Langella's performance as Nixon, as well as Michael Sheen's as David Frost. (I tried not to take it personally when the International Herald Tribune critic, Matt Wolf, wrote, "Frost/Nixon provide[s] a snarky guide to [the] proceedings in the form of Elliot Cowan's bespectacled James Reston, Jr.") No one seemed to care about what was historically accurate and what had been made up. No one seemed to find Nixon's breaking down and subsequent contrition unsatisfying. Not even me. Langella had made it work, brilliantly...not through more words, but with shifting eyes, awkward pauses and strange, uncomfortable body language, suggesting a squirming, guilty man. Less had become more as a great actor was forced back on the essential tools of his art.

Langella had not impersonated Nixon, but had become a totally original character, inspired by Nixon perhaps, but different from him. Accuracy—at least within the walls of theater—did not seem to matter. Langella's performance evoked, in Aristotelian terms, both pity and fear. No uncertainty lingered about the hero's (or the audience's) epiphany.

In April 2007 the play moved to Broadway. Again the critics raved. But deep in his admiring review, the New York Times' Ben Brantley noted, "Mr. Morgan has blithely rejiggered and rearranged facts and chronology" and referred readers to my 1977 manuscript, which had just been published, at last, as The Conviction of Richard Nixon. A few days later, I heard from Morgan. Brantley's emphasis on the play's factual alterations was not helpful, he said.

Morgan and I had long disagreed on this issue of artistic license. I regarded it as a legitimate point between two people coming from different value systems. Beyond their historical worth, the 1977 Nixon interviews had been searing psychodrama, made all the more so by the uncertainty over their outcome—and the ambiguity that lingered. I did not think they needed much improving. If they were to be compressed, I thought they should reflect an accurate essence.

Morgan's attention was on capturing and keeping his audience. Every line needed to connect to the next, with no lulls or droops in deference to dilatory historical detail. Rearranging facts or lines or chronology was, in his view, well within the playwright's mandate. In his research for the play, different participants had given different, Rashômon-like versions of the same event.

"Having met most of the participants and interviewed them at length," Morgan wrote in the London program for the play, "I'm satisfied no one will ever agree on a single, 'true' version of what happened in the Frost/Nixon interviews—thirty years on we are left with many truths or many fictions depending on your point of view. As an author, perhaps inevitably that appeals to me, to think of history as a creation, or several creations, and in the spirit of it all I have, on occasion, been unable to resist using my imagination."

In a New York Times article published this past November, Morgan was unabashed about distorting facts. "Whose facts?" he told the Times reporter. Hearing different versions of the same events, he said, had taught him "what a complete farce history is."

I emphatically disagreed. No legitimate historian can accept history as a creation in which fact and fiction are equals. Years later participants in historical events may not agree on "a single, 'true' version of what happened," but it's the historian's responsibility to sort out who is telling the truth and who is covering up or merely forgetful. As far as I was concerned, there was one true account of the Frost/Nixon interviews—my own. The dramatist's role is different, I concede, but in historical plays, the author is on the firmest ground when he does not change known facts but goes beyond them to speculate on the emotional makeup of the historical players.

But this was not my play. I was merely a resource; my role was narrow and peripheral. Frost/Nixon—both the play and the movie—transcends history. Perhaps it is not even history at all: in Hollywood, the prevailing view is that a "history lesson" is the kiss of commercial death. In reaching for an international audience, one that includes millions unversed in recent American history, Morgan and Ron Howard, the film's director, make the history virtually irrelevant.


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