Friday, June 08, 2007


Winner Takes All

By Josh R
The turbulent reign of Richard Nixon came to a crashing halt on August 9th, 1974, when the 37th president of the United States tendered his resignation under threat of impeachment and almost certain conviction in the wake of the Watergate scandal. While one of the bleakest chapters in the annals of American politics had reached its inglorious conclusion, the questions — and there were enough of them to confound a team of Egyptologists capable of cracking hieroglyphic codes — had only just begun. As historians continue to contemplate Nixon’s involvement in the confused chain of events that was to prove his undoing — and reactionary revisionists like Pat Buchanan stubbornly persist in trying to explain it away — many points are still subject to dispute. Pieces of the puzzle have fallen through the cracks, and while the picture has become clearer with time, it remains maddeningly incomplete. Of all the lingering questions to come out of the chaos of Watergate, the simplest of all might produce the most complex and convoluted answer: Why did he do it?

By 1972, Nixon was virtually unassailable. He had all but ended American involvement in the Vietnam war (complete withdrawal of all remaining troops would occur the following year), and the success of his re-election bid was virtually a foregone conclusion. Indeed, his victory over Sen. George McGovern was one of the biggest landslides on record — he carried 49 of 50 states. As far as "Dirty Tricks" were concerned, there was really no need — the kingdom was secure, the frustrations of the populace abated, the voice of dissent all but quieted to a murmur. An aura of invincibility gave him ample margin for error — the perpetual also-ran was, at last, a winner. What was it that prompted someone at the height of his powers to put so much on the line, when there was so little need to assume such risk?

A good shrink would undoubtedly find Nixon a fascinating subject for study (hindsight being 20/20, a little therapy wouldn’t have done ol’ Tricky any harm either). Jung likened analysis of the subconscious to the mapping of uncharted terrain; I suspect when it comes to understanding Nixon, arguably the most controversial figure of the 20th century, there is no combination of theory and intuition which could cover the entire distance. It’s not just that he was he was notoriously cagey; how well can we ever understand the inner workings of someone else’s mind? Of course, one of the goals of art is to provide insights and reveal truths that fall beyond the grasp of science, and Frost/Nixon, the new play by Peter Morgan currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is an intriguing attempt toward that end. If the overall effect occasionally leaves something to be desired, it is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of two men in crisis, each with something to prove, plenty to lose and everything to gain. In order to emerge victorious, they have to get past each other, and playgoers with an appetite for carnage can rest assured that the skirmish that ensues won’t stint in that regard. These combatants never come to blows — seldom do they ever rise from their seats, or raise their voices to the point that the tenor of their speech suggests anything other than polite conversation — but the battle is fierce, and there’s never any room for doubt that blood will be spilled.

At the outset, this tête-à-tête with pugilistic underpinnings appears to be something of a mismatch. In 1977, the British talk show host David Frost sat down with Nixon for a series of televised interviews, the latter’s first public discussion of his presidency since resigning from office. At no point in the years following his abdication had Nixon made any admission of wrongdoing, nor expressed anything even remotely indicative of remorse — both the public and the news media were chomping at the bit to put him in the hot seat. The foppish Frost, known more for his playboy lifestyle than his journalistic prowess, was considered a singularly unworthy adversary for his shrewd opponent; the general feeling was that the crafty ex-commander-in-chief would cut him down to size without breaking a sweat (not exactly a mean feat for someone who’d been known to perspire profusely in televised appearances). The object, as far as Frost was concerned, was to shed his reputation as a benign, genial toastmaster — The UK equivalent of Merv Griffin — and establish himself as a legitimate journalist. For his formidable opponent, it was a chance to put a revisionist spin on his political legacy, negate established fact and restore his reputation. An army of heavy-hitters, including Mike Wallace, tried hard for the interview; Frost got it owing to the fact that those in the Nixon camp saw him as easy pickins. In a hotly contested battle where words and wiles were the weapons of choice, the cocky bantamweight seemed to have much of a chance against the seasoned gladiator as David did of taking out Goliath. In both encounters, the underdog prevailed — but in Frost’s case, it took more than a slingshot to bring the giant to his knees.

Morgan’s somewhat slick recapitulation of the saga of Frost and Nixon, dramatizing both the interviews and the events the leading up to them, unfolds as an elaborate game of carefully baited hooks and cunningly devised traps in which each of the players exist as both predator and prey. The playwright dutifully chronicles the feverish behind-the-scenes maneuverings by which Nixon’s participation was obtained; intense talks between the two camps endured over a period of months, negotiating the format and terms of the interviews. It was an expensive proposition, and Frost himself eventually had to assume most of the production cost after networks balked at the ballooning price tag — legendary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar brokered the multimillion dollar deal from Nixon’s end, with most of the proceeds going into his client’s pocket. Once everything was settled, the participants and their advisers set about formulating strategies, analyzing ways in which to exploit the other’s weaknesses — the entire enterprise quickly assumed the status of a high-stakes poker game.

The frenzied activity leading up to the showdown accounts for more than half the action of the play and, as painstakingly recreated by Morgan, it doesn’t always make for particularly compelling theater. The playwright has a good sense of structure, and is able to covey a great deal of information with an admirable degree of economy — but as a writer of dialogue, there’s not much style to his style. Many of the lines that come of the characters’ mouths seem to exist on a purely functional level; when the two narrators, Frost adviser Jim Reston (Stephen Kunken) and Nixon chief of staff Jack Brennan (Corey Johnson), begin their sentences with phrases like “Meanwhile,” “The next day” or “What he didn’t know was that...,” they sound as though they’re rattling off bulleted talking points in a bloodless history lesson. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Morgan’s characters (or rather, their real-life counterparts) have a more fluid command of language than he does — but there’s a marked difference to be observed between the playwright’s words, which have the occasionally stilted, artificial quality of forced exposition, and those which can be directly attributed to his subjects. As such, it’s only when Morgan reverts directly to the text of the original 1977 interviews that Frost/Nixon lifts off into the realm of crackling entertainment.

Excerpted in such a way as to maximize their dramatic impact, the interviews make for a wonderfully suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse, with enough Machiavellian intrigue to keep audiences glued to the edge of their seats. The ex-president, a genius in the art of subterfuge, offers a masterful study of managed aggression as he effortlessly diffuses his interrogator’s tactics, manipulating the flow of the conversation with long-winded responses and confusing the issues with evasive rhetoric; Team Frost is made painfully aware of the extent to which they’re being out-maneuvered when a production technician is overheard saying that he would actually vote for Nixon on the strength of his performance. When the momentum shift finally occurs, in a stunning reversal that strips the shrewd manipulator of all his defenses, it rips right through the surface slickness of Frost/Nixon to reveal the harrowing psychological wreckage of a vanquished warrior who can neither comprehend nor accept his fall from grace.

This stunning coup de theater illustrates both the greatest strength, and perhaps the single greatest flaw of Frost/Nixon. If Morgan’s dramatic scheme is essentially sound — getting away from the mythological aspects of the Nixon legend (Oliver Stone’s operatic film treatment of the Nixon years felt almost biblical in its implications) and locating the life-size human drama at its core — from a historical (and moral) perspective, he cheats a little bit. It’s not just that he takes liberties with some of the facts — to a certain degree, he lets Nixon off the hook.

Morgan has made something of a personal specialty of taking on history’s most controversial rulers — he penned the screenplays for both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, and his latest effort provides further evidence of his fascination with political legacy as shaped and defined by scandal. In each of the three pieces, it’s obvious that the playwright is in thrall to his central figures — understandable, given how rich and complex they are as characters — to the point that he isn’t always able to view their real-life counterparts with a clear eye. The Idi Amin film played almost like a dysfunctional version of The King and I; mass genocide, as depicted in summary detail, took a back seat to the brutal dictator’s colorful, larger-than-life personality. The Queen seemed a bit too willing to view Elizabeth II as a victim of unfair persecution, someone whose actions were less the product of willful imperviousness than a noble desire to uphold the dignity of her office and the realm. The screenwriter took great pains to compare his heroine to a hunted animal (the labored metaphor of the stag) while glossing over the impassivity and arrogance that made her target in the first place. Morgan acknowledges his characters’ flaws without fully allowing for the presence of genuine venality — his treatment of their behavior and attitudes is decidedly sympathetic (Amin might not have been a good guy, but darned if he wasn’t likable). It comes as no surprise then, that in his first venture as a playwright, Morgan makes more of a tragic figure of Richard Nixon than he probably was. A play that depicted Nixon as a soulless monster wouldn’t have been interesting from a dramatic standpoint — that said, nor is it entirely appropriate to view him as a misunderstood anti-hero. Morgan doesn’t quite take it to those lengths, but he does try to evince pity for Nixon in ways that don’t always jibe with historical fact. It’s worth questioning whether an American playwright would have taken the same kind of softening approach.

Fortunately, the actor portraying the ex-president never allows us to feel too sorry for him. Frank Langella’s transformation as Nixon represents an amazing feat of alchemy; with his gravelly voice, stooped posture, flailing hand gestures and scowling countenance, he captures the essence of the man in ways that no mere physical or vocal impersonation could. It’s a heavily stylized performance that verges on caricature, but at the same time feels completely true to life. Beneath the gruff jocularity, he captures the dark currents of paranoia and anger that inform his character’s behavior while at the same time offering unexpected glimpses of harrowing emotional frailty. As Frost, Michael Sheen gives an accomplished, engaging performance that never quite convinces us that his character is a worthy adversary for Nixon. Both Morgan and Sheen emphasize the comic, slightly ridiculous aspects of Frost’s preening persona — it creates an interesting study in contrast, but tips the balance too heavily in favor of the actor who creates a far more substantial presence. For the record, Mr. Sheen registers as a much stronger presence here than he did in The Queen — which reduced Britain’s reigning prime minister to the level of puppyish, conscientious boy scout — but you never really feel as if this peacock is capable of bringing down the tiger.

As in Mr. Morgan’s film efforts, it’s the marquee attraction which dominates the proceedings, and Mr. Langella delivers a ferocious performance which goes much further toward unraveling the mysteries of Nixon than any amount of academic postulation could. The evening’s most startling sequence depicts a late-night drunken phone call Nixon makes to Frost – an event purely of the author’s invention. It is in this moment that Nixon’s surface geniality gives way to reveal deep-seated feelings of impotence, resentment and rage, and where the actor makes explicit the extent to which his character’s mindset has been shaped by an entire lifetime of feeling abused, underestimated, and despised. Unlike the current tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Nixon was not the product of a life or privilege, nor was his ascendance to power particularly smooth. He got where he did by scratching and clawing, wheeling and dealing, and braving the insults of people who dismissed him as a nonstarter, inferior and a joke (people also forget how fiercely intelligent he was — something that could not be said of certain other parties). Nixon had a chip on his shoulder, to be sure, and as high as he climbed, he never felt secure in his position — he always suspected that the world was against him, and that at any moment everything he had built could come crashing down around his ears. As for that critical question — Why Did He Do It? — I suspect it had something to do with the fact that he never fully believed that anyone was on his side. He wanted to be embraced by the American people; in his own peculiar way, he cared about us. He never trusted us enough to believe we might reciprocate.

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I wish I could have seen Langella as well as Schreiber in Talk Radio.
Langella will repeat his performance for Ron Howard's film adaptation, so you will get to see that one. Not quite sure how it will translate, but it'll be interesting to see.
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