The difference in overall tone between Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon and the film version directed by Ron Howard is noteworthy. The action of the play, right up to the point where David Frost begins to interview President Nixon, is light in tone, frequently comic, and sometimes almost frothy. By contrast, Howard’s treatment of the material is solemn from beginning to end. In an earlier post I referred to the horror-movie tone of the scene in which Michael Sheen, as Frost, gazes into a TV monitor and confronts the shadowy figure of Frank Langella’s Nixon; this plays without any noticeable tinge of irony.
In the play, the character of James Reston Jr. functions as a narrator looking back on the events of thirty years before with a certain mixture of pride and defensiveness about having been so doggone determined to “get” Nixon; in the film, Sam Rockwell, as Reston, portrays him as completely convinced, in 1977 and in the present, of the righteousness of his task. His only regret is that he is, so to speak, playing Sam Gamgee to Sheen/Frost’s Bilbo, slogging to a Mordor disguised as a serene home by the Pacific, and destined to stand by while his cohort goes in for the kill. (One also has the impression that this is how the real-life Reston sees himself.)
This is typical of Howard’s approach to the whole project. In the play, Bob Zelnick is presented as being a bit cynical about Reston’s holier-than-thou attitude; Oliver Platt’s portrayal of Zelnick in the film doesn’t quite get that across. Several of the play’s comic highlights have been eliminated; others have been altered to bolster dramatic instead of comic effect, as when RN begins a taping by asking Frost if he did any “fornicating” the night before. In the play, this is very funny while also getting across the point that RN is using it to discombobulate Frost before the cameras roll; in the film, its comic aspect is played down.
Another prime example is the scene in which Irving Lazar (who, incidentally, disliked the nickname “Swifty” and would not have been likely to use it when calling someone, as the film has him do), Nixon, Frost, and producer John Birt meet for the contract signing. Onstage, the scene plays out with plenty of laughs; Frost announced the check is to be paid “to the order of Richard Nixon” and Lazar instructs that it be made out to himself; Frost writes the check and begins to hand it to RN, but Lazar grabs it, explaining that industry practice requires that he handle it and take his commission first. This scene, by all accounts, really happened, and that adds to its humor. But Howard chooses to end the scene at the point where Frost finishes writing the check. At first I wondered if he was sending some sort of message about payment etiquette to his own agent, but on second thought I’m inclined to think that he simply wanted to avoid a big laugh from audiences. This would explain why Toby Young, a British actor with a very accomplished comic sense, plays Lazar in a rather low-key, realistic manner, compared to the way the character is delineated in the stage version.
This brings us to a very notable difference between play and film: the way in which the interview scenes are handled. When the play was running on Broadway it was pointed out in many articles that two of its climactic scenes – RN’s drunken phone call to Frost and Jack Brennan’s interruption of the taping during the session about Watergate – were invented and had no basis in the historical record. (As noted earlier at TNN, Diane Sawyer and Frank Gannon have both pointed out that Kevin Bacon’s rather humorless, hypersuspicious Brennan has little resemblance to the real-life figure – though it must be granted that Bacon does, from time to time, attempt to put some human nuances in the character, beyond what the narrow portrayal in the script provides.)
But, as Ty Burr remarks in the Boston Globe review cited by John Taylor below, the point where the interview scenes of Frost/Nixon the movie diverge most thoroughly from those in the play comes when Langella/Nixon utters the line “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
In 1977, RN spoke these words not during a discussion of the Watergate break-in and the events subsequent to it, but in response to Frost’s question about the 1970 “Huston Plan.” The transcript of that exchange makes clear that RN was addressing the problems of domestic terrorism and violent attacks on public welfare and safety that the Huston Plan was intended to handle, and drawing a comparison to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War which puts his argument into perspective. Whether one disagrees with it or not, it is a carefully reasoned statement, when put in context. The play reproduces this transcript, albeit with some rather minor cuts and changes.
But Howard (and, presumably, Morgan acting as screenwriter, though one would be interested to know if he has explained this in interviews) takes that sentence completely out of the context in which RN used it and plops it right into a discussion of Watergate, making it look as if RN were insisting that no matter what he decided in response to the events ensuing after June 17, 1972, his status as President would guarantee their legality. Now, it may well be that in 2008, a lot of Americans who never saw the Frost interviews with RN or remember them only dimly think that Nixon said those words in response to a question specifically about the Watergate cover-up. But he did not. And it serves no good purpose for Howard to alter the record to make it look as if he did. In fact, even in the context of the film the distortion of the statement weakens the dramatic effect, even as delivered by an actor as skillful as Frank Langella.
This is one reason why I would say that Frost/Nixon the play, even though it bears more or less the same relationship to history that Shakespeare’s plays bear to actual events (as I commented on David Stokes’s radio show), still gives a more genuine picture of Nixon as man and political figure than Frost/Nixon the movie manages to do. When Rev. Stokes brought up Oliver Stone’s movie Nixon I had seen Peter Morgan’s play but not Ron Howard’s film, and I thought that if the movie stayed close to what I saw onstage, it would have more right to be called true-to-life than was the case with Stone’s pseudo-Brechtian venture into propaganda. But, unfortunately, the changes made in Frost/Nixon’s transition from stage to screen nearly all tend to veer toward Stone-type caricature. Which, in the long run, may diminish its prospects at Oscar time. As for its chances of box-office success, I have the feeling that audiences on Christmas Day who aren’t in the mood for kiddie and family fare will be more likely to see Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button. The classic movie about Richard Nixon has yet to be made.