The January issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article by James Reston Jr., whose book The Conviction Of Richard Nixon was an important source for the play and film Frost/Nixon (and who was portrayed in the play as the onstage narrator of the proceedings, though this role was considerably altered in the movie). Reston, surprisingly enough, spends little time fulminating about RN’s misdeeds – he seems to take it for granted that the views are shared by the Smithsonian reader. But he does offer some very interesting stories about the development of Peter Morgan’s play. (He does not discuss the film.)
Reston says that after Morgan used his (then) unpublished book as part of the basis for the play, he was invited to London, where the first production was to be held, to take a look at what had emerged. He remarks, “[t]o my amusement, Jim Reston [as a character in the drama] was played by a handsome 6-foot-2 triathlete and Shakespearean actor named Elliot Cowan.” (One has to wonder how amused Reston was when director Ron Howard later cut down the part for the movie and cast Sam Rockwell, a decidedly less imposing actor who portrays Reston as a humorless, pedantic, obstinate fellow who leans toward being either geeky or dorky, and sometimes both.)
Reston reveals that in its original form Frost/Nixon was to be in two acts, not the uninterrupted 95-minute version that took London and Broadway by storm. But at a reading of the play Morgan and the production’s director concluded that to permit an intermission before Michael Sheen (as David Frost) got down to grilling Frank Langella (as Nixon) would fatally compromise the impact of the drama by breaking the momentum.
Morgan decided on a leaner text and started cutting and revising to that end. Interestingly, Reston says that Langella resisted this, wanting more material, not less, put in from the Frost-Nixon transcripts, but was overruled by playwright and director. It could be just an example of the old story of the star seeking to beef up the part, or it could be that Langella was looking for a way to add different dimensions to the role other than the Watergate-centered ones most apparent in the finished product.
What Reston says is worth keeping in mind when one examines the differences between play and film. The play pushes the one-act format about as far it can go – indeed, it is really a two-acter without the intermission, the dividing point coming when Frost faces RN and the cameras roll, with a short prologue and epilogue. Ron Howard’s film, by contrast, develops in the traditional three-act manner of the classic Hollywood movie: a prologue (RN resigns, Frost watches resignation on TV), first act (Frost assembles crew and meets RN and seals the deal), second act (Frost prepares, goes with RN before cameras, reaches crisis point when Reston and Zelnick think he’s caving in), third and climactic act (Frost gets phone call, buckles down, gets tough on Watergate, wrings contrition from RN), and wistful, half-ironic epilogue (dog does not bite RN, Frost gives RN nice Italian shoes).
Reston clearly thinks the play should have stuck more closely to his book – which he does not hesitate to describe as the one true account of what happened, not bothering to mention Frost and Bob Zelnick’s two books on the subject – but concludes that, though it takes liberties with history, the play Frost/Nixon presents a kind of truth beyond the reach of the historian. (As it happens, Reston has ventured into playwriting himself, with a drama based on his account of the 1978 Jonestown mass murders.)
A useful supplement to this article is Roger Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times review of Howard’s film. Ebert, an occasional screenwriter (for the idiosyncratic films of the late Russ Meyer), notes one very significant thing about the movie: unlike the play which is told, more or less, from Reston’s point of view, Frost is definitely the protagonist of the film. This explains why Michael Sheen goes to some trouble to put nuances and depth into his characterization beyond what the play – and, even more so, the film’s script – provides for.
Finally, Scott Galupo at the Washington Times has written a very good article concerning the questions Frost/Nixon raises about how presidents shape their legacies after leaving office, with some insightful quotes from Nixon Reconsidered author Joan Hoff and other historians.